San Soda is known in underground music circles as a real record collector. It shows in his predictably unpredictable DJ sets, which are made up of carefully chosen gems unearthed after years of crate digging around the world. Based in Berlin but Belgian by birth, he prefers extended sets with proper rotary mixers, and is a gimmick free selector who avoids tricks and effects
How would you sum up the musical genres that you would play?
I’m usually all over the place. I mean I started from house music – that was my starting point – this was around 12 years ago. I think 80% of my sets were house music until about six years ago, then I started opening up a bit more, listening to other DJs that were playing different music and basically now it’s anything. In the last year I’d say it’s mostly African music, disco, Italo and I’ve reconnected with Belgian music a little bit – as well with New Beat from the 80s and a bit more towards boogie and slower stuff.
Would you say that’s the natural evolution of your tastes or is it more to do with the variation in the types of places you’re playing?
I’d say a bit of both. It has a little to do with the DJs I’m booked together with, or that I’m linked with. So, obviously, I’m listening to everyone and taking inspiration from everywhere. And also, it is, a bit of personal interest. For example, I’ve been digging deep into Belgian sound over the last few months.
Do you think of yourself as a producer first then a DJ or vice versa?
It’s a fair question. I feel like a DJ foremost. That’s also the profession or the skill that I’ve been busy with the most. I love producing – I’m in the studio often but only for short sessions and I don’t really have the time and the patience to stick to an arrangement and work on it for very long time – so mostly I’m jamming in the studio and I really love it but I see it as my second thing. That kind of sustains the DJ thing as well. I probably wouldn’t have had the chances to DJ as much if I hadn’t produced my own tracks, but it’s not a secret that I’m not the biggest fan of my own productions. The thing I enjoy most is the jamming and then I’m in a different planet – I love sitting in the studio and just jamming and playing the keys or whatever, but I’m not one for finishing songs. I would definitely say producing is my second thing.
What can you do to ensure the audience is getting the best from the performance?
When I started I wasn’t very knowledgeable about what I was doing. In the beginning you’re mostly imitating what you see from other DJs and seeing what happens when you touch something or seeing what the result is and going by learning. Then, over the years, I think the way I learnt the most was just by experience and seeing when things went wrong and finding out why they were going wrong and then not doing that in the future – learning from it. And automatically, by looking at those kinds of problems – like needle skipping, rumble, your sound getting really limited, things like that – automatically you dig a bit deeper and you try to understand. There are big parallels with what happens in the studio – working with limiters and compressors and all that kind of…. there are a lot of similarities. You remember ‘when I was on the computer in the studio and I did this, this was happening so when I do this with a big audio system, the same thing’s going to happen’, so obviously for me there’s a big parallel.
Now it’s at a point sometimes I arrive at a gig and I’m busy for half an hour trying to change things or trying to work together with the sound engineer to get things better. This is something I wouldn’t have done 10 years ago, because I didn’t have the experience – I didn’t really know what I was doing. Now I’m feeling super comfortable. I’ll speak to the sound guy before the set and talk to him about exactly what happens with the signal when it comes out of my mixer. Because it’s the whole chain, so whatever happens from you putting the needle on the record until the sound reaches the ear of the audience. It’s a whole process and if one thing in that whole process goes wrong or you impact something in the whole process that you’re not aware of, then you can change the whole experience for the dancer and in the end that’s the only thing you’re there to do – to play the music and have the people experience it.
After doing it for all these years, it seems logical that you would be involved in the whole chain from start to finish. Not just the start where you’re putting on the music, but to the very finish, when the people are actually listening to the music.
Can you talk me through that audio chain?
I used to play more vinyl – mostly vinyl, like 90% – and gradually over the years I’ve been digitising a lot of my records. These days it’s probably 50/50 and I’m shifting towards going fully digital. This has been years of me thinking about what to do and seeing how things feel. I don’t DJ as practically with digital files as I did with the record, so there’s a lot of considerations to take into account. But where I am now is that I’m digitising a lot of records and I take a lot of care in that – I just bought a whole new set up. I’m really trying to make sure the source material is as good as it gets. I guess that’s the first step of really taking care of what happens before you put something into the DJ mixer.
When you talk about digitising your music, are you talking about taking vinyl records and digitising them?
Yeah – I really try to take care of it. It wasn’t the point, but it’s also a nice way to process music. I have way too many records – like 15,000 – so, I’m constantly trying to see what I can sell or I go through a stack and decide whether each record is worth digitising or not. It’s also a really nice way to listen to it and be busy with it and then you can put the record in the shelf and you have the nice clean file that you know you can use for a long time – it’s a nice way to be busy with music.
Is Funktion-One one of your favourite systems?
Funktion-One is definitely always a plus, especially when it’s set up right. Unfortunately, sometimes, I also notice that if there is some mistake in the signal going from the record to the speaker, then it can really go wrong sometimes, but that’s obviously not the problem with the system, it’s a problem with something in between. So you’ve got to be careful with a system like that that because it will be even more accentuated or even more clear something is going wrong. My favourite thing with Funktion-One is that people can choose where they want to be in the music, if that makes sense. I think it’s relatively neutral – it’s a transparent honest representation of the sound. People are flexible in that if they want to be a bit more in the centre – to be a bit more inside the bubble of the music – they can do that. If they want to be a little further away, talking with their friends, listening to it from an angle, that’s also something you can do. With some other systems, it’s on or off.
So I think that’s what I like about Funktion-One, as well as the fact that it’s very defined and it makes it easier to express your music – especially the music that I play, which often has vocals, a lot of variation in rhythm and things happening. And especially with a good isolator like the DJR-400 has – it’s really nice to accentuate the arc of the music. It’s easier to do that with a Funktion-One than with a different sound system. I like to to isolate the mids for half a minute and really have people let those mids power through and make the contrast again by turning it away and accentuating the highs. It’s really nice to specify different regions of the music frequency-wise but also just the bass part or just the vocal, or maybe just the high hats- so it’s a very good system to play around with in that way.
How does the quality of the sound affect the audience?
People always underestimate how sensitive humans are – even unconsciously. The experience of someone listening to a sound system and a DJ doing something is so intricate – literally 1dB of level somewhere being wrong or one frequency being not right… even unconsciously you can have an incredible effect. That’s why it’s important, as a DJ, to go and listen in front of the system, to really know what’s going on – and it helps you so much more. So many times, in the beginning, when I wasn’t doing it. I’d play a set for three-hours and when I’d finished I’d go into the room and be like ‘fuck – have I been playing like this?’ Small things that are wrong can have a huge impact on a person’s experience in front of the system. The quality of the sound system is very very important. And you need to know what’s going on there and how people are experiencing the music for you to take them on a journey and really tell a story.
What have you got coming up?
I’ve been quite quiet over the last few years production-wise – I haven’t released in about three years, but I’ve done a few one-off remixes and smaller things under a different moniker. I’ve been DJing nonstop every weekend. I plan to release a bit more – hopefully at the end of this year / the beginning of next year. Actually, I’m working hard on a blog – that’s my main project right now. It’s called ‘Music Take Me Up’. It’s going to be podcasts with music from different parts of the world. So, for example, the first podcast will only be music from Israel, second one will only be music from Indonesia – adding pictures and info on where people can go and dig for records, things like this. This will go along with a label – I’ve already done two EPs with edits – with music I found in the Philippines and Malaysia – but I’m going to take it a bit more seriously now and there’s going to be full on reissues as well. I’m very excited about the first one coming out this month, an Arab disco track called Badala Zamana by Zohra. Coming up for 2019 we have U.X.B. – Sting Me, a few releases with Belgian music and one of my favourite Gospel songs.
Listen to… San Soda on Soundcloud
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