Adrian Sherwood

Award-Winning On-U Sound Producer Uses RipX DAW PRO to Create Stems for Immersive Sound Performances & More

An interview with award-winning DJ, producer and label owner Adrian Sherwood (On-U Sound, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, Afrika Bambaataa, Primal Scream, The Slits)

RipX DAW PRO is changing everything – I absolutely love it! I’ve been able to recover things that I’ve lost the original multitracks for, and get vocals and parts from some of my old tunes. I also use it for MIDI file extraction, making melodies and within immersive audio. I’m a big fan!”

Well-respected and with a cult following globally, On-U Sound is an iconic independent UK record label with a back catalogue of original and remarkable music, stylistically fusing the worlds of reggae/dub, post-punk, hip-hop, industrial, jungle, dubstep and beyond.

The label emerged from a fertile UK DIY scene that birthed other legendary indy labels such as Rough Trade, 4AD and Factory.  Since 1981, with label boss and producer Adrian Sherwood at the helm, On-U Sound has released over 100 albums and singles and launched the careers of countless artists such as Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Tackhead, Dub Syndicate, African Head Charge, New Age Steppers, Singers & Players and Bim Sherman.

Adrian is also known independently as a highly influential producer and has worked with everyone from The Slits to Cabaret Voltaire, Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, The Fall, Sinead O’Connor, Clinic, Roots Manuva, Coldcut and Nisennenmondai, Pinch and more. His remix credits include Depeche Mode, Afrika Bambaataa, Blur, Primal Scream, Air and Peaking Lights. Massively respected by other musicians, he is even an acknowledged influence on the likes of Andrew Weatherall, Carl Craig and Machinedrum.

Better yet – he’s a big RipX DAW PRO user and advocate!

“I went to school in High Wycombe. I had lots of friends who were like myself; English, who liked pop music and Tamla Mowtown. I also had friends who were Indian, Pakistani and all my West Indian friends and their sisters basically turned me on to Jamaican and Caribbean music. Bit by bit, I became more and more obsessed with what was coming out from Jamaica, so I ended up firstly becoming a very young DJ playing all the records that I liked from pop, ska and reggae, then more obsessed with the stuff coming out from Jamaica.

I always liked records to jump out of the speakers at me. I started off liking gimmicky records and I was obsessed with things like Lee Perry’s ‘Blackboard Jungle’ album and producers like Link Wray, and I was fascinated by things where the balance wasn’t quite right. Where the drums were disproportionately lower or high, and things were leaping out all over the place!”

But being a non-musician, the opportunities really started for Adrian after deciding to work in live sound, before then getting into distribution and then setting up his own company.

“I was working with Jamaicans such as Prince Far I and other great artists and rhythm sections, and by using reverbs, delays and EQ sweeps live, it gave me something. It gave me the opportunity to express myself. From a very early age, I was also involved in distributing records before I even went and made a record myself.

We had a very embryonic reggae Distribution company, JA Distribution, not Jamaica, Joe and Adrian it stood for, and we then started a label and I worked with a chap called Chips Richards. I remember Chips saying to me that if you want to be in the record business, you need to look interesting to distributors and you’ve got to try and build a catalogue as quickly as you can, because by having a catalogue, people are prepared to deal with you. Whereas, if you’re going through the door of a distributor with only one record, they tend to show you the exit pretty quickly, unless it’s a truly in demand or amazing thing. So from early doors, I learnt to try and build a catalogue which I did. Firstly with Carib Gems then Hit Run and with my label On U Sound. I eventually got into production.”

Well-known as being tone deaf, Adrian’s focus has therefore been on making sounds and noises rather than crafting melodies.

“Ha ha ha I’m tone deaf! I mean I can sing in key and lots of things I’ve written are in A minor but I’m not a musician and I’ve never pretended to be. What I love doing is soundscaping, making sure there’s surprising elements in the production and making sure it’s not cluttered. I’ve learnt so much about tonality and space from all the years making records. I know what I don’t want and therefore, I’m not like a orthodox traditional musical producer. I just do what I do and I don’t really care. I’m not great with tuning but I’ve got a good ear for what sounds wrong!”

As for his most satisfying musical project?

“Usually the last one I worked on. I mean, I can look back on them, I can go right back to the record I made with my friend Mark Stewart, who died this year, the album ‘Learning To Cope With Cowardice’ and also the album ‘Time Boom the Devil Dead’, again with two of my late friends, Lee Perry and Style Scott and I can hold those up. I can go through my whole catalogue and say ‘The Wolf at House Built’ by Little Axe, ‘Miracle’ by Bim Sherman, the current African Head Charge album I’m very proud of. I see them all as my records anyway and I’m very proud of so many things from my catalogue, although those ones immediately spring to mind.”

And his proudest achievement artistically and favourite remix so far?

“Difficult question. I’ve been lucky to work with some wonderful people and I can’t really hold one up. I’ve been involved in the making of what I think are great records. I just wish 10 or 100 times more people thought they were as good as I did! I generally prefer producing, but the best remixes I’ve done have been where the artist has been with me, so I look at Echodeck I did with Primal Scream. That’s a great record. I look across the board and there is quite a lot, but that one stands out, but that’s mainly because Andrew and Bobby were leaning over my shoulder saying ‘more’ and ‘more’, or ‘no no no’ and that was a great result.”

I haven’t been asked to do enough scoring film music. I’d love to do more! I like what I like to be honest with you and I love the whole process of recording from the very beginning to the very end. As Dennis Bovell said, “when the musicians are finished, it’s your time to finish mixing and shaping it at the end.” I would say I probably love being in the studio creating music with great people best, and finally when it’s my time to mix it, put the final touch on it.”

But does Adrian sample much, and what’s his approach and thoughts on it as an artform?

“I think sampling is very healthy. I’ve been sampling things or nicking things forever. I never thought of it as theft particularly. I thought of it as collage and things I did use in my productions were usually quite askew, but as it was, I was thinking that if it was successful, you just pay people. It was never nicking something to the detriment of anybody else. I think sampling is great. I think it’s an artform unto itself, and now with the advent of RipX DAW PRO and the ability to extract midi files, it’s like a whole new world is open where, as a creative tool for someone like me I couldn’t be happier.”

As for high-quality stem separation, AI Music and Spatial Audio?

“You can’t fight time. Time is moving, passing and running so you’d better get with it. You’ve got so many options now. You can’t be a Luddite destroying the equipment. It is what it is. In the right hands, you can do something really creative and great. I can see people being worried about it but for me, it’s kind of exciting creatively.

When it comes to reggae and dub music specifically, I think that space is more a factor, it’s more spaced out than the old Jamaican stuff. There’s spatial audio formats and it’s only a matter of time before the format is used by somebody with good songwriters and young folks start fronting it. It could be a ‘mega success’ in a dub flavour.”

Favourite studio gear?

“I’m a big fan of AMS which I’ve had for 40 years, the vintage Grampian spring Cinema Engineering EQ, Mutron Bi-Phase. I could go on. I love all the vintage ones but there’s so many incredible plug-ins now that you’re almost bombarded with choice. All those ones I mentioned I might use on almost everything, but I’m very lucky to own those and they’re not easy to get hold of!

But I think you can work with absolutely anything. You can make do with things these days that cost about £100 – £150. The Eventide pedals are stunning. There’s so many great things out there, it’s just how you use it.”

As for RipX DAW PRO, Adrian and his team have been using the software in the studio to separate the On-U Sound back catalogue, including creating an immersive mix for the first ever, sold out ‘3D Dub’ live show at Earth in London.

RipX DAW PRO is changing everything – I absolutely love it! I’ve been able to recover things that I’ve lost the original multitracks for, and get vocals and parts from some of my old tunes. I also use it for MIDI file extraction, making melodies and within immersive audio. I’m a big fan!”

“RipX DAW PRO and immersive audio are two of the most exciting things I’ve come across in years and I’ve felt so enthused with all the developments. Things are really exciting, but like anything it’s a tool. It’s how the people who have got it in their hands use it. I personally love everything to leap out of the speakers and give me elements of surprise or give the listener elements of surprise and these tools are game changers. I love it.”

Finally – if Adrian could give advice to someone starting out in the music industry, what would it be?

“Just do as much as you can while you can and don’t think too much about it. Don’t even worry, don’t be concerned about the monetisation of it because it is very difficult. It’s only a small percentage of people that manage to do that. Do as much as you can, while you can and get really good with the tools you’ve got at your disposal. Collaborate with people who take you out of your comfort zone and try to be around good songwriters or try and work towards becoming something of at least half a songwriter yourself.”

Check out On-U Sound’s website and back catalogue HERE.

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