DJ Phantam is the pseudonym of Adam Miller, a 15 year-old composer based in Kent, who works from home writing progressive house and trance. His music first came to Mstation's attention when a recent track, 'Synthesised Reality', was included amongst a collection of reader's pieces on the July issue of the UK magazine Computer Music.
Adam Miller's music is mature in substance, complex and well-structured, and meticulously produced, with the classic build-ups and break-downs of hardcore techno and trance. Orbital's 'Chime' is a seminal example of a tune produced in a bedroom studio which made it into the charts, and then into the books of electronica history. Adam Miller is following in their footsteps.
Miriam Rainsford spoke with Adam recently about his music, how he works, and his plans for the future.
How did you get into composing music?
I originally started playing around with music about two years ago, when a friend lent me a copy of 'Music' for the Playstation. I had virtually no musical experience up to that point- I basically just started dragging and dropping pre-composed riffs to form rather disjointed tunes. The good thing about 'Music'was that you could analyse all the riffs note-by-note, and generally see how things were done. As I picked things up over time, I gradually incorporated more and more of my own stuff into my songs. Learning how to make songs yourself is good, because it means that you're less influenced by the conventions that other people are following.
After about a year doing this on-and-off, I decided to investigate options for making music using my computer. I spent ages scouring the internet looking for software, and eventually settled for Fruityloops, as it looked like the easiest program to get into, and didn't involve the technical evils of MIDI. From then on I've gradually progressed, analysing professional music more and trying to understand the general principles of composition. With my current setup, I'm running the excellent Reason software, and a Yamaha SW1000XG card.
It's a shame that the big software developers don't support Linux - music software is a great drain on PC power and could really benefit from the increased stability that the OS offers. At the moment though, I'll just have to make do with Windows ME - hopefully though if smaller developers start producing more stuff for Linux, and the user base grows, then the bigger developers will convert their products for the system.
Do you write in any particular style? I noticed on your website that it says you compose trance and house music, but your pieces seem to vary quite a lot in style.
I try to write a whole mixture of different styles of music, mainly because I don't just listen to a single genre at home. I mainly try and write a mixture of drum'n'bass and house tunes, because for me these are the genres which give you the greatest flexibility in terms of style and influences which can be incorporated into them. I'm not afraid to write more commercial house tunes, like the one which was featured in CM magazine. Trance requires more knowledge of harmonies and song structure than most other dance genres, but is still often criticised for being 'music by numbers'. It's always good to diversify occasionally though, and I try and draw together loads of different influences to write d'n'b tunes. I often try to incorporate the feel and production techniques of dub reggae into my songs- it was the first genre where the production played as big a part as the music itself, and so therefore it is very relevant to modern dance music. Most of my other pre-electronic influences are black artists, from jazz to 70's soul and funk. My main house influence though are Leftfield, who have produced two excellent albums that push the boundaries of dance music, and for d'n'b Roni Size and LTJ Bukem.
Where does the name 'DJ Phantam' come from? Do you do DJ-ing as well?
My name is actually completely unconnected to anything I do - it was just the first thing that entered my head when I started making music, and I haven't been bothered to change it since! I don't DJ- in fact I can barely put the needle down properly on my dad's old record player, but it is something I'd like to have a go at. However, the cost is prohibitive at the moment, combined with the fact that you need to know your scene and get a reasonable stock of records before you start. If I wanted to keep up with a scene, I'd probably have to go up to London to get records- there aren't many 'with it' record shops in rural Kent!
How do you
start a piece? Do you work from samples, or do you find a melody that inspires
I start putting songs together in all manner of different ways, it really depends on what my inspiration is. I basically started 'Synthesised Reality' with the arpeggio, and built the track up from there. The harmony was all programmed in step-time with the mouse, (my keyboard skills are woefully inadequate) basically by just experimenting with different intervals, nothing complicated at all. I wasn't really inspired by any single thing as such- I just composed the harmony, and thought that it would be a good building block for a trance track. After this, I did the drums- just a basic 4/4 beat, although it is important to choose sounds carefully. I composed the bassline next- I decided against the normal off-beat bass in favour of something a little more complicated, although not sticking to the norm does make a track harder to mix.The lead lines are basically just riffs that fit the chord progression, although again it is important to select a good sound that doesn't conflict with the bass end too much. I decided to put the middle section in as a good contrast, and to create tension before the main part came back in. After the track was finished, I compressed it loads using the SW1000XG's internal effects, and also applied some EQ. I did a final corrective EQ in Goldwave (a shareware wave editor), where you can visually see the waveform being altered. I know that the pros always advise use of ears before eyes- but I always like to ensure my song looks even and makes good use of the dynamic range available. Often my songs are inspired heavily by another track I've heard, or I occasionally try and sample a track I like, although I've never actually got round to completing a song where the main part was sampled from another record!
working with the new 'Reason' software - can you tell us about how it works?
Reason is a brilliant program, partly because you can modulate just about anything you want to. In something like Cubase, any VST instruments that you use all exist on their own terms, rather than being linked together in a single integrated package like in Reason. You can have a software synth , and send it to a delay, or a reverb, but you can't treat it as though it were a piece of gear in a real studio. In Reason, you can take the output from the synth, patch the left-hand audio wire into a delay unit with, say, a 12ms delay, then patch the right-hand wire straight into aspecially created mixer, to create a cool stereo effect. On the mixer, you can boost all the levels to maximum, with bass and treble pots all the way up, then patch the master output into a channel on the main mixer to create a great distorted sound. On the main mixer, you can create a delay unit on an aux send, then patch that into a phaser, chorus and filter, before patching it back in to a channel so you can control the levels. All of the synth and effects parameters can then modulated as you want. That sort of control just isn't available in any other software form, and would be very costly and difficult to emulate in hardware. When taken in isolation, none of the units in Reason will hold their own against things like Halion, Dynamo and Battery, but they all come together to form a great package. If you're strapped for cash, then nothing can beat it for making electronic music. I'd much rather have Reason than a grand's worth of hardware.
What music do you listen to - and who are your influences?
I listen to all sorts of different music, but most of it has been influenced in one way or another by electronics. For me Leftfield are one of the best dance acts. Their debut, Leftism just possesses a different sound to anything else- just pure quality throughout. If I had to give one track in the entire world the dubious title of 'bangin choon!!!' then it would probably go to 'Space Shanty' by Leftfield. Their second album, 'Rhythm and Stealth' was not quite so well received- understandable given that it takes a more challenging, harder edge- but I think that you can appreciate the effort and skill that went into crafting it better if make electronic music yourself.
Turning the clock back a bit, I think that part of Leftfield's sound comes from the dub reggae of the 70's. It's ironic that some of the most influential music of the time came from run down studios in Kingston that were maybe running a four-track tape deck and an echo unit- but I think it began a trend which has followed through to the present day, whereby some of the most innovative music is made in people's bedrooms, not big studio complexes. King Tubby was possibly the best producer in this field- most of the dub remixes he did were very good. Lee Perry (Bob Marley's producer) also produced an excellent album with a vocal group called 'the Congos' which I think has quite a modern feel, with lots of subtle incidental sounds drifting in and out of the mix. Massive Attack write some great stuff- especially their most recent album, 'Mezzanine'. I think that it's the most consistent album that they've produced, and all the songs have an excellent brooding atmosphere. Kruder and Dorfmeister's K&D Sessions remix album is the perfect chillout for any d'n'b heads. It has a smooth, jazzy atmosphere which melts seamlessly from one to the other, just oozing originality. LTJ Bukem is obviously an influence- I particularly like the natural ethnic feel he gives to his tracks, and the drums on Demon's Theme must be one of the best breakbeats ever. If could take only one track to desert island, it would probably have to be 'Bug Powder Dust' by Bomb the Bass. It's a weird one- the lyrics are nonsense (I think !), and the album it comes off ('Clear') is pretty boring-but the tune itself is just brilliant simplicity- mad analogue bass riffing!!!
you any plans for the future?
Are you planning to study music formally?
As for the future, I'm not really sure. At this point in time, I'd rather be doing anything other than schoolwork, which is really depressing, especially when it eats up precious composing time. The dance music scene is generally quite different from the rest of the music business, as much of it is very anonymous, which I like. It means that a decent producer can quietly change the style of music that they make when musical trends change, and still have a job. It also means that you don't have to have looks or instrumental ability, as your music creates your image, rather than your image defining the music that you make. However, the world of dance music is still a struggle just like any other genres, with many producers just doing small club releases- hardly the route to stardom and riches. At the moment, I don't particularly wish to spend several years struggling to make it, so audio engineering is another possible option. This is a much more secure and long term option, which would involve some of the techniques I've already learnt. Hopefully I could expand this a bit more and become more of a producer for other artists- there are no set boundaries. Whatever I do in the future, it hopefully won't be working in an office!
And in the
near future, there's been some news on your recent track 'Synthesised Reality':
When I sent my demo in to CM, someone from the Official Playstation Magazine (same parent company) must have heard it, and they're now using Synthesised Reality on the demo disc as music for a new feature (called 'goal of the
month' I think). I'm slightly hazy on the details, but i think its basically just a long film made up of replays that readers have sent in, with my music as the backing track. They're using it for 2 months to guage the success of the feature, and then after that they said that they will pay me to use the track.
Thanks very much, Adam. Mstation wishes you the very best with your music in the future and with the Playstation Magazine release.
For more information on Adam Miller, aka DJ Phantam, visit www.mp3.com/djphantam