With almost every producer these days, it’s all about branding, branding, branding. While 99.9% of artists certainly talk about branding, an incredibly small amount actually walk that walk and have such a cohesive union of sound, style, imagery, vibe, and a certain e-cool aesthetic as No Mana.

While his sound certainly has shifted over the years I’ve been following him, it has never felt forced or strategic like many artists’ sounds do as they “blow up.” Instead, No Mana’s sound has a certain swagger-filled maturity now that he’s been in the game a handful of years, and that’s legit one of the coolest things about his journey as a whole.

His recent release on Monstercat is a culmination and masterclass in this, and so when I heard that he was interested in dropping the sauce on how his latest track was put together, I jumped at the chance to get him on and pick his brain about how he works his magic. As always, listen to his latest release below to acclimate your ears to what he’ll be talking about, and then let’s dive into the next iteration of How It Was Made: No Mana – City2City

No Mana - City2City

Ableton’s Simpler

Lately, my workflow has been very heavy on using native effects and instruments. I wouldn’t be the best person to ask for a list of fun new plug-ins to play with, but if you asked me how important one essential plug-in was in my projects I might just go off. On my house song, “City2City”, I’ve used Ableton Live’s Simpler (their native sampler) for almost all of its main sounds.

Simpler is Ableton Live’s simple version of their Sampler, and for a while I had no idea why they made two versions of samplers until I realized the workflow difference between the two of them. Simpler was designed for people like me who don’t believe you need to skin a goat to use a snare sample. The interface was easy enough so that you could use a sampler without spending too much time tweaking things that probably don’t matter when you’re just trying to add sound as an idea to a bigger picture.

At this point a lot of people are probably asking “well Jordan, why don’t you SiMpLy just place audio samples on a playlist instead of using Simpler”?

While that’s great for a few things, such as playing and warping long audio samples such as impacts, sweeps, risers, and other FX, Simpler is great for one-shots, drums, leads, doing sample synthesis, loop effects, and such. One of the biggest time savers using Live is using Simpler for drums instead of manually placing audio samples on the playlist. Oftentimes I’ll want to tweak the sample itself, whether it’s the pitch, fade, ASDR, sample start point, and so on, which would take hours when trying to do it with 100 or so individual samples each time I wanted to make changes.

I also find it more fulfilling to come up with ideas when messing with one-shot samples and turning them into melody lines or rhythms as opposed to synthesizing them from scratch; and it could be because it’s a lot more fun and fast to experiment with sounds that are already there, or it’s because of the limitation of such a simple instrument that forces me to find an application for it as opposed to spending hours on end in the continuous possibilities of synth parameters.

Using samples feels crucial for house music in general, especially because many sounds in house and techno are overused (in a good way) to a point where listeners and producers gravitate towards them for their familiarity (e.g., hoovers, acids, reeses, stabs). Although we could get close to those sounds by synthesizing them from scratch, we can rarely be 100% exact when trying to replicate them.

Therefore the desired sound won’t feel familiar enough. Simpler can just be a tool to instrumentalize those samples. Although samplers aren’t necessarily an instrument that gives a specific sound like a Prophet 6 or a Subsequent 37, Simpler allows me to shape desirable samples like a synth in a minimalistic way and apply it like a practical instrument – a creative flow I couldn’t get with managing individual samples or tweaking a labyrinth of a synth.

Anyways, here’s how I used it in my track City2City.

The Kick

No Mana - City2City

Every kick I make has to have layers – I’m never satisfied with any single sample bare bones, and layering it is crucial to fit specifically to the track it’s in. I find the easiest way to do this is to create an Instrument Rack of Simplers as opposed to creating a new audio track for each layer you’d like.

This way, it is modular and easier to add, delete or switch out layers than manually placing them on the playlist which would otherwise create more room for error – for example, forgetting a layer hits on just one or two kicks, which is a more common oversight than we think. Usually, each layer in the Instrument Rack plays a role for each bandwidth the kick occupies – 1 layer for the sub, 1 or 2 for the bass and mid-range, and a few for the transient and top end.

The Main Synth Stab

No Mana - City2City

This sound can be heard on the first drop that sounds a bit square ish and is sustained for a fraction of a second. For this sound, I took a recording of a eurorack session and threw it into Simpler. The session was about 30 minutes long and if you played the sample itself, it would just be this very long sustained note with different overtones and such. When I threw it into Simpler, I changed the sample start and end times to sift through sound until I found something that fit. To make it into a stab, I slowed the attack by just a bit so that the transient wasn’t clicky, and edited the decay and sustain so that it felt more percussive.

The Bassline

No Mana - City2City

Slap an 808 kick in Simpler and call it a day (yeah, it’s that simple, and sometimes it’s better that way). I could have synthesized this on my own, but one of the things I love about using Simpler is the joy of going through the samples and switching out candidates for what sounds the best—sometimes even using left-field or unconventional samples that completely change the feel of the track.

I know Simpler is like this dull plugin to write about but when having gone so long valuing sound design from scratch or realtime synth plug-ins, using Simpler becomes this workflow revelation that made me realize making music isn’t and shouldn’t be that hard and should flow a lot easier than when I spend hours on a synth to find the perfect sound, or post-processing a sample that shouldn’t have been the sample to use in the first place. The limitations of Simpler helped me realize that sometimes it’s not about the sound itself that makes the music good, it’s how the sound is used in context of the music.

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