DIY Music Production (An Interview With Milo Dinosaur)

In our mission to explore all avenues of music production, we spoke to Azim Idris of Milo Dinosaur [MY] about producing an entire LP from start-to-finish in under a year.

The ‘punk’ ethos courses through Azim’s veins, and is evident in his DIY approach to making shit work, even against all the odds.

With bandmates scattered across the country, a minuscule budget, and an unforgiving 3-story recording studio with no elevators, Milo Dinosaur were able to produce an album that has been turning heads. That album is ‘Dengan Ikhlas’ (English translation: Yours Sincerely).

Hey Azim, congratulations on the successful LP launch! How has everything been, post-release?

Thank you, Sean! Yes, we have been touring and playing one-off shows relentlessly since Nov 2018 and it’s been quite a wild ride so far.

Our very first show after releasing the album online was at The House of Vans concert in September and the tour, named after our album “Dengan Ikhlas”, included dates in Johor Baru, Kuantan, Penang and Ipoh, apart from Kuala Lumpur and two nights at Singapore’s Rocking the Region festival at the Esplanade.

It was quite an honor to be invited to the festival, sharing the bill with some of Southeast Asia’s finest independent bands such as Marijannah (Singapore), Forests (Singapore), T-Rex (Singapore) and Secret Meadow (Indonesia) to name a few.

In January we did dates in Melaka and Mantin, followed by a special showcase by The Wknd Sessions, Malaysia’s pioneering Indie music portal, in which we opened for Surabaya folk duo Silampukau.

Milo Dinosaur open for the KL show of Baltimore post-Hardcore outfit ‘Pianos Become the Teeth’ on February 26 at Live Fact. Buy your tickets here.

Recording an album by yourself is a full-on job. How were you able to manage the entire process?

All of it was purely out of the circumstances surrounding Milo Dinosaur with some of us living in other states and juggling our personal lives, jobs, and everything in between.

We would like to have done the recording, mixing and mastering with the help of studio professionals but we were bogged down by time and financial constraints… so I had to do it all myself.

On the upside, the band managed to pull all 8 tracks off within the span of a year and, surprisingly, received encouraging reviews and features in top-10 lists in music publications at home and abroad. We’ve even gotten some good airtime on radio.

Going full-on DIY allowed us to bring our “Punk” ethos to another level – everything from the entire production process right down to the design of the album’s cover was done in-house.

To add some context, I have been doing home recordings as a hobby for the past 14 years, starting with a 10in 10out Presonus Firepod Audio Interface with Sonar Producer so it was only natural for me to attempt to rise up to the plate by producing an album worthy of public consumption.

Considering you all live across the country from each other, how did you get around that?

Most of it was sorted through advanced planning with us keeping each other updated on our schedules at least a week before a proposed activity takes place.

At one point Falique (Vox & Bass) and Zul (guitar) were living in Johor Baru, some 350kms south of KL. But they were back in my city almost every weekend so we had to maximize practice and recordings during their off days.

Milo Dinosaur performs during the Buka Panggung Showcase at the Bentley Auditorium on Jan 19, 2019. Photo by Adam Mutahir.
Did the internet play a large role in the production & collaboration process?

Definitely, we did not use any specialized tools for collaboration other than WhatsApp where we often shared videos of chord progressions or audio clips of singing melodies.

It was simple and fast because we were able to save a LOT of time during rehearsals and recording as we already knew what needed to be done during the sessions.

The spare time was spent improvising our tunes and composition.

The mixing process of the album also involved me sending out files to the other bandmates so they could give instant feedback even while away in other states.

How organized was the process overall? Was there a conscious ‘game plan’ going into it? Or was it all ‘off the cuff’?

Basically, we approached the album’s recording song-by-song.

Laying down the guide tracks was pretty seamless as Alang (drums) didn’t require a guitar to accompany his playing for the most part. He’s ace behind the drum kit and at times even helped out with the guitar tracks as he did most of the song arrangements.

The foundation of the tracks were done by Alang and myself while the other two members padded all else whenever they were in KL. That’s how we managed our time.

A typical Milo Dinosaur set up for doing guide tracks with drums. In this photo, Azim uses his Fender Mustang Pawnshop Special (MIJ) guitar hooked up  a Mooer Red Truck that goes directly into the audio interface.
What were some of the biggest challenges recording an entire album DIY? How much more challenging has the whole process been compared to doing EPs?

There were notably a few challenges I can remember in terms of the whole direction of the album; managing the people involved, working with the limited resources and equipment that we had, and again, managing time.

It can get overbearing and frustrating at times, especially when you find yourself so near to the finish line but then somewhat hit by some unforeseen turn of events, despite so many deadline extensions.

When it came to the direction, a second opinion from a producer from outside the band could’ve come in handy.

When it came to equipment, expectations were high while resources were limited. But a lot of compromises contributed to the steep learning curve.

It was daunting at times as the recording aspect was conducted in several different places. My neighbors couldn’t handle the racket we were making, even during the afternoons. So, I resorted to a friend’s rehearsal space, a small semi-treated room measuring some 3.5 x 8 meters situated on the third floor of a shop house with no elevators.

This meant that I had to lug a sizable amount of recording, drum and guitar gear up six flights of stairs every time we had the sessions, and back down again when we were done as the mixing took place at home.

We are grateful for that space, but like I said, it’s very confined and crammed up with other gear so our movement was, and still is, restricted. I was always seated on the floor because we could not fit a desk or computer chair and I was always in the same room when laying down the drum tracks – a bad idea for my posture and an excellent way to expedite a hearing impairment.

Most of the album’s recordings took place in a semi-treated space measuring some 3 X 8 meters.
Break down the recording setup of the guitars for us. What guitars were used, amps, mics, etc.

I will if you promise not to laugh.  Truth be told, none of it involved amp miking.

We did everything direct to the interface with the aid of guitar effects processors and digital amps such as the Korg Pandora, POD XT Pro, Mooer Red Truck, Fender Mustang III. I think I might have used the cab emulator of my Blackstar 1X12 HT40 guitar amp at times as well, but pretty much all of them had tube simulations or emulators of some sort.

We mostly looked for sounds that matched the VOX AC30’s clean tone with a little bit of dirt and the same with the Fender Twin Reverb.

We also used tones typical of Marshall Plexis. Somehow going directly into the 18i20 gave me stronger and more balanced signals at the expense of an organic room sound, which I compensated with the use of some tube and reverb effects.

Azim Idris’s pedal board.

As for guitars, Zul used his trusted Peavey T-60, quite a monster of a guitar with a classic Ibanez FC10 Fat Cat (Rat clone), while I tended to use my Japanese Fender Mustang Pawnshop Special (in Lake Placid Blue) or my Japanese Fender TL-62 (also in Lake Placid Blue) or my lightweight Fernandes JG-62s (for guidetracks).

There are 10 pedals on my pedalboard but we will save those details for another time – nothing extraordinary other than my Empress buffer +, my Dr. Scientist Reverberator, the Catalinbread Dirty Little Secret and an Ibanez TS-9 Tubescreamer.

As for Bass, Falique mostly used a 5-string OLP or an Epiphone Firebird that was aided by his Hartke Preamp.

Zul’s Peavy T-60 is quite a tone monster.
The bass and guitars sound incredible. Was there a certain tone you were looking to emulate with the record? How did you achieve that? What sort of post processing do you do for them?

If you liked our tone, it was mainly because we double-tracked most riffs and phrases so you could still hear the strumming of strings at the fore with some crunch or overdrive in the background.

The best way to replicate this during a live set is with the use of two amps – one wet (with overdrive/distortion) and the other dry (clean).

For guitars, we were focused on emulating sounds by some of our favorite bands like Sport (France), Lukestar (Norway), Hurula (Sweden), The Get Up Kids (USA) and Sheila on 7 (Indonesia).

Tell us about the drum recording. Again, super tight! What drum kit, microphones were used? What sort of post-processing do you do for your drum chain?

When I moved to my friend’s studio, I used her entry-level Maxtone Jazz kit. The kit was made of cheap poplar shells and sounded awful no matter how you changed the skins or tuned them.

The snare and cymbals were a little bit more premium as I used a Mapex 14” x 6.5” Exterminator (made of Birch and Walnut) and 16” and 17” Istanbul Agop Traditional Crash, Zildjian K Custom Hybrid 14.25” Hi-Hat, and a Zildjian A Custom Rezo Ride cymbals.

As for the microphones for the tom and kick drums, I used a Superlux PRA Series drum mic kit which I bought for about US$150 more than 10 years ago. I also used a pair of Behringer C-2s for the overheads and either a Shure SM57 or Beta 58a for the snare.

Six or seven mics in total at any one time, including an Audio Technica AT2035 condenser (which I used for vocals) for the room.

Azim used high-grade snare and cymbals but the kick drum and toms needed a drum replacement plugin.
Tell us about how you effectively used drum plugins?

I turned to drum replacement plugins in the form of Drumagog (US$100), a VST which might have descended from heaven.

It has quite an array of drum kits – from D.Ws Maples to Tama Star classic kits – recorded in professional studios and works intuitively towards dynamic playing.

Drumagog works by instantaneously embedding pre-recorded drum sounds that are triggered by waves in your original recording. It’s great when it works based on sensitivity, but problems arise with what I call “rogue” waves, caused by resonance of the drum skins that trigger undesired replacement double and triple strokes, especially during fast-playing and drum rolls.

It can easily turn into a nightmare when this happens repeatedly in a track, which means many hours are spent zooming into these waves and erasing, repositioning or replacing them one-by-one to get 100% accuracy.

What about post-processing on the drums?

Like the guitars, I consolidated all the drum kit channels into its own Bus to make the overall mix more streamlined. Of course, I applied some noise gates, compression, equalisation, and reverb in the bus for a balanced and overall “roomy” sound.

Coming back to the drum replacement, elements of the organic drum sounds were still present in the overall mix due to the overheads and I was also allowed to blend both the sound patches from Drumagog with the kit I was using in the studio.

Similarly, what about the vocals? There are lots of sections with gang vocals, were they done in isolation or recorded as a group?

There was indeed a lot of double-tracking involved when it came to both the main and backing vocals – it produced a very chorus-ish effect that made our voices sound soothing and hides our flawed pitching. All the vocals were done in isolation, which gave me more control during the mixdown. Typically, a Milo Dinosaur song would take up to 25 to 30 tracks of everything, a third of which is occupied by just the vocals, which were placed in their own respective buses.

Falique records vocals in Azim’s bedroom with Alang guiding him on the tracks. Most vocal parts are recorded twice to give a chorus effect.
Any outboard gear used at all or was it all “in-the-box”?

It was mostly in-the-box, everything from the compression to the EQ and reverbs and noise gates.

The only outboard gear I used was a Behringer MIC 100 tube pre-amp, which added a decent amount of warmth to the vocals and guitars. While all of the VSTs were from Reaper, I did use a dual-band parallel compression plugin called BOOST (by de la Mancha) that was downloaded from VST4FREE.COM and worked wonders by adding a lot of gain and headroom to some instruments and my overall mix – I love it because it’s a no brainer to use, unlike many other compression VSTs that cost a bombshell.

Was there anything that took you by surprise about producing the LP? Any interesting stories/situations that forced you to take drastic measures/do something creative to keep the process moving?

During the process we let some people hear the recordings before the mix was finalized and most of them thought all of it was done in a professional studio. This shows just how far digital recording has come in the past one or two decades where almost anyone can produce recordings at an acceptable level of quality.

The stock VSTs on Reaper are fairly basic and it was hard to get experimental with effects, so I had to improvise. On our flagship track ‘Usah Resah’, there was a filtered effect of the entire drum kit between min 2.53 to 2.58 that I managed to get by rendering the entire drum kit into one wav. file and then plonking it back into a track on Reaper with some EQing and distortion, making it have some semblance of drum & bass effect to add color to the song.

As the band’s producer, I think motivating the rest of the guys to finish off what we started was a key element in the album’s completion – looking up what listeners and gig-goers are saying about the band helped encourage everyone, including myself, about releasing the entire thing. Sometimes we have boast and gloat about our achievements or goals, real or imagined, to give our spirits a shot in the arm.

The finished product. Milo Dinosaur sold more than 500 copies of their album within weeks of its independent release.
How do you collectively decide when the album is done? Is it a group decision, or did you call the shots?

Almost every decision the band makes is based on consensus, it’s a democracy of sorts and big ones like that require quite a bit of deliberation.

The decision was rather easy in our case because we approached the album song-by-song, meaning we did not move on to working on the next track until the previous one was considered finished.

Personally, it’s something I and many producers are guilty of — not knowing when to call things ‘done’ and move on.

I totally get where you’re coming from, most musicians are absolute perfectionists who wished they had put in more ideas into songs they already finalized, but I think we can always feature those improvisations during our live sets. Maybe that prospect would attract listeners to come to our shows for a different experience, right?

Naturally, we wanted to have more tracks on the album but that could have set us back several months. In the weeks leading up to its first upload on YouTube and Bandcamp on Sept, 3, we were concerned about the band losing momentum. Our first single ‘Usah Resah’ was launched at the end of Nov, 2017 and we felt that we could not afford any more delays.

The shows we had lined up, especially the House of Vans concert on Sept, 8 last year, also did the deciding for us. To this day, I think we made the right call. The album has somewhat altered our lives for the better; it’s gotten us dozens of more shows, funded our travels around the country, and allowed us to reach out to new friends and listeners, making us less and less obscure as the days go by.

What was your approach to mastering the album?

I referred to quite a bit of advice by home recording enthusiasts and other experts on YouTube on this seemingly dark art. I would put all the songs of the album on one Reaper project screen and ran them all through the same compressors, equalizers, and limiters to get consistency.

The results weren’t great but they were at least passable. We could’ve have gone louder had we used other software but maybe we can do so in later projects and when I upgrade my seven-year-old laptop.

What’s your best piece of advice for bands who are looking to self-produce an entire album?

A lot of professionals would advise against doing so for many valid reasons, but I think it can turn out to be a fun and fulfilling project, so long as it falls within your means. I think with the essential amount of gear, any band or musician can work wonders.

That said, I don’t think bands should develop what we call Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS), an addiction to buying stuff we mostly don’t need – it’s a silly arms race.

Sure, outboard gear is great but at this stage of the band, it’s considered a luxury. If you reach a stumbling block on achieving a certain tone or sound, there are plenty of guides on YouTube, or back copies of Sound on Sound and Future Music that could easily guide you as they did for me.

Don’t be shy to seek advice from experienced recording engineers as well, and if they are reluctant to share their knowledge, find one who’s not an asshole.

Seems like you have to be smart about your resources.

Yeah, instead of going out on a mindless shopping spree, try to work with what you already have on hand and use that cash to print and replicate your CDs, tapes or vinyl and making merch that you can sell on tour.

Protip: save up so you can actually afford to go on tour once the album is out.

Keep the 50 bucks you made from the last show and don’t go out painting the town red. Even more so when you start raking in three to four figures per show.

Good quality production only accentuates good songs. If the content is bland and lacks uniqueness, then all the money spent on top-notch production is rendered useless.

[bctt tweet=”Good quality production only accentuates good songs. If the content is bland and lacks uniqueness, then all the money spent on top-notch production is rendered useless. – @AzimIdrisHybrid” username=”producer_hive”]

Lastly, try NOT to show your work in progress. Even when it’s so tempting to showboat on social media.

You don’t want to hype things up unnecessarily and give your listeners high expectations unless you are absolutely sure that you could deliver within the expected time frame – people will take you less seriously and your “competitors” and “haters” (yes, you will certainly have them) would simply have more ammo.

Deny them that satisfaction. Instead, drop your tracks or album with a sudden bang, so they won’t know what hit them!

Your band-mates should chip in for funding studio time and other band expenses as one person should not have to shoulder the cost of everything. It’s just downright uncool and unfair.

What’s next for Milo Dinosaur now that the LP is complete?

Well, it will just be playing more shows and doing interviews every now and then. We are looking into possibly producing a music video but there are no promises about that plan.

Moving forward, I think future Milo Dinosaur albums will be done at a more professional studio but the gear that I have right now would come in handy for pre-production work and reference so that we can save time and cost when the real production begins.