The DJ Techniques and Music Production course in Bray Institute Of Further Education has acted as a catapult for a multitude of successful Irish DJs and producers over the years, and is taught by a number of high profile Irish DJs including Sunil Sharpe and Doug Cooney. We spoke to some notable past students and teachers from the course, to find out what makes Bray a hotbed for Ireland’s finest electronic acts.
The DJ Techniques and Music Production course in Bray Institute Of Further Education has acted as a springboard for some of Irelands leading DJs today. The one year course is radically unique and the only of its kind in Ireland, giving DJs and music producers a year to hone in on their skills and bathe themselves in electronic music culture.
The music production and DJ techniques studios in BIFE exude an infectious atmosphere, as a number of young creatives revel in the art of music production, and DJing. The course is home to all things electronic music and teaches student’s about the fundamental basics to DJing and music creation, while also giving attendee’s a rudimentary insight into the roots and culture of electronic music. The year course gives young artist’s the cathartic feeling of freedom within an educational space, as the lecturers give the students the space to breathe and find their totally unique sound and voice within music.
Situated in Wicklow within walking distance from Bray village, the course seems steeped in Ireland’s rich dance music history. From some of Ireland’s pinnacle DJs to being the home to some of Ireland’s most notorious raves, there’s compelling feeling of dance music culture as DJs from all across the country flock to the corner of BIFE to learn their trade. The college itself is immersed in history, as students stumble across relics of previous students scattered across the college. Wether it’s pictures of some of Ireland’s leading DJs in their youth, to old equipment that was once handled by these students, it’s impossible to not feel like anything is possible when you’re in an environment that is quite frankly prolific for producing the best DJs in the country.
Doug Cooney serves as the newest tutor in BIFE, as he arrived the same year as myself. He came with a pedigree of teaching DJing and production through his Real Sound course which offers a comprehensive understanding of DJ techniques and music production in Ableton, so naturally Doug fit right in. Doug was familiar with the course for many years and had always aspired to teach in Bray in some capacity.
He shared similar thoughts to myself as to how the course somewhat helped him outside of a musical context, and opened his eyes to the inner workings of human behaviour, and how the experience of working within this environment has shaped him as a person.
“You need to come in with a good attitude and be respectful of people and how they work, which is something we all need to learn. The human dynamic was probably my weakest point when I first came in, because I was so used to doing my own thing. So the experience here has helped me develop as a person ,which is key and has helped in my teaching, music and other areas of life.”
We spoke a little bit about the atmosphere of the college, and the sheer authenticity that circulates the corridors. From the sound of kick drums seeping out of the DJ booths, screeches of excited DJs and countless gig flyers that are plastered around the music sector. The course possesses an undeniable charm, and some of the main takeaways from the year can’t be written on a piece of paper.
“There’s nuances to a room, it’s not all about the piece of paper at the end of the year. Sometimes it’s about letting people find their own way. Some students will go on and do a masters and become teachers, some will make a big track and start touring, some people will drop out but have made friends for life, it’s about letting people do their thing, but also respecting that I’ve a job to do.”
“You have to let people make their own mistakes, and find their own path. You can’t impart your experiential wisdom on people without affording them the opportunity of making those mistakes themselves, but we try to better equip the student for when they make those mistakes. We need to allow people to be human, be imperfect, make those mistakes and that’s how people find their own sound, journey and style.”
Doug reflects on how his time teaching the course helped him reconnect the importance of the fundamental skills and joys within dance music.
“One of the best things I’ve gotten to experience while working here is observing people like yourself, David O’Neil, Conor Reilly and a heap more students. Watching your playful style and the way younger DJs don’t over think too much. It definitely brought that playful and fun side back to my music, which I think I lost as I grew older. I was trying to work too hard, and get signed to the right labels, I was actually going to the extremes and sucking the life out of the music.”
“My time in BIFE really feels like it’s coming full circle and reminding myself of the fun of it and rekindling with old techniques, but now having the skillset to execute them properly. It’s really reminded me of the purism of it all- finding good records, hanging out with the crew, making tunes, learning new stuff and realising I was doing all the stuff twenty years ago and here we are today, enjoying the very same things.”
We went on to speak about some of the notable DJs to come out of BIFE, and the vision that the tutors have for pushing electronic music in Ireland.
“I’ve watched the amount of high calibre students that have come out of the college over the years, and people go on to do great things, Defekt for example just signed to Tresor, what an amazing accolade. The teachers like Ken have had a vision for pushing electronic music in this course for many years.”
“Now I’m playing alongside plenty of past pupils, and I’m seeing lineups all over the country filled with ex BIFE students, and it really feels like a BIFE takeover. It’s a testament to the community and forward thinking nature of this college, and we’re only getting warmed up, there’s another chapter to be told from the Bray Institute Of Further Education”
Before we finished our chat, I wanted to return to themes of learning, friendship and ultimately community within the college, as we pondered what exactly makes this course so special.
“There’s a forward thinking and inclusive atmosphere with regards to electronic music in the college. There’s a real sense of belief and community, we’re all in this together in here. When people get outside the class room and continue these conversations, that’s when labels start up and nights are formed. Arguably some of the most valuable takeaways from the course are the friendships and the bonds between classes.”
I began our conversation by asking Ken to give me an insight into what he teaches the students.
“Firstly I teach the students how I think about music which is centred around frequency and amplitude, which is much more important than music theory. Secondly they will learn about the instruments involved in electronic music. You’ve got your Roland 808, 909, 606, 505 and so on, and these are drum machines and they’re like friends to me, and a lot of people don’t really know about these things, and the culture behind them. On the other side of the coin we’ve got classic breaks, like the apache break, amen break, snatch & grab break etc.., and then we learn how to make our own samples and drum kits. One thing that I purposely never do is repeat myself. Students know if they don’t go into Ken they’re missing something.”
“For me sound is more important than music and electronic music is organised sound, so it’s a slightly different way of thinking and it allows you to experiment. It’s a long conversation, and I much prefer to have conversations with students, and it takes a long time to really grasp it. There’s a big conversational aspect to the course rather than us telling students what to do, it’s like we’re all trying to figure this out together.”
Ken always put an extreme importance on giving each individual student their own private time and space to create, and Ken’s approach to teaching each student would always be very personalised. Ken speaks about some of the benefits of the course.
“We’ve all tried to learn things online, but the problem is you can’t get any feedback (laughs). You don’t know if you’re doing well or if you’re on the right path, but in the college you can bring a track to me, and while it might not be release ready and it might not be for a while, I will be able to identify the next two things you need to work on. And the next time students come in if they’ve worked on that, their tracks will be better, and that feel’s great and gives them confidence, and then they get the next two things (laughs). I don’t like to overburden students with criticism or too much work. The fact that students are making music means they’re the cool people.”
BIFE is one of the few colleges that encourages experimentation, and Ken is at the helm of this bubbling energy of freedom of expression that erupts during his classes. Ken’s classes are never the same, and he reiterates his love for diversity and freedom to experiment in the classroom.
“Experimentation is vital. There is no defined goal, then you have to experiment. A lot of students don’t know they’re strengths, what inspires them, what makes them feel good or what connects them with other people. You know some people might sit at a laptop with just a mouse and a DAW and find it to be a really cathartic experience, and a massively enjoyable way to spend time. While that might drive some people bonkers, and they need to be in room with other people using their energy and they might enjoy experimenting with hardware. After a year or two of experimentation you can increase your chance to say yes to things because you have experience doing different things, and you also know your strengths which is great.”
Ken is one of DeFeKT’s close friends and the pairing have made music together for many years, but their friendship started many years ago when Matt [DeFeKT] first enrolled in BIFE. I wondered if Ken noticed that Matt was particularly gifted during these early stages.
“There is no such thing as gifted, it really just means you’ve put in the hours and now you make it look effortless but I can guarantee you it was not effortless. He still proudly has his trophy for DJ of the year, and he is still very proud of it. I learned a lot from Matt too, he got me out a lot, and we had really long conversations about music – he’s a dear friend. I noticed the focus in Matt very early on, and there was a lot of people in his year that had a similar focus. A guy called Paddy Cashin was in the same group who moved to England and he would build his own synthesizers and fix peoples 808’s, if your 808 was broken Paddy was the man. So myself, Matt, Paddy and a guy called Simon were in a group called ‘Push, Move, Click’ which was experimental music, we had no keyboards or sequencers, just modular synths. Paddy also went on to to set the group and shop London Modular Alliance, so he sold a lot of equipment to Blawan and Bodikka over the years.”
“If there’s a willingness to make music, I’m happy to let them explore and learn in different ways. It’s hard showing your music to someone, it’s exposing a bit of yourself, and if people don’t like it you can take it personally, you shouldn’t really but some people do. People that are willing to fail and stand up and do it again, Matt had that in him.”
My next conversation with a former teacher of mine came with the formidable Sunil Sharpe. Sunil has become the face of BIFE over the years as his exponential growth as an exemplary Irish DJ has skyrocketed alongside the course. Sunil’s passion, commitment, focus and no bullshit attitude seem totally in line with BIFE’s ethos and atmosphere. His Thursday classes were the stuff of legend when I was in college, and getting to sit in a room with one of the best DJs on planet earth is without a doubt one of the most influential and cathartic experiences I’ve ever had as a budding DJ.
Sunil got involved in the course before he had really broken through as an internationally renowned DJ, and I was curious to how Sunil first got involved with teaching.
“I started back in around 2005. I took over from a friend Jon Hussey, who was one of the original founders of the course a few years before this. DJ Tuki started at the same time, and he had taken over from Davy Splyce. He was showing the students turntablism and the hip-hop approach. I was there to get them up to a competent level of club DJing and to get the hang of basic techniques like beatmatching. At that point I wasn’t too much older than most of the students but I felt comfortable enough in the role. It was exactly what I needed then too. I’d grown disillusioned with DJing and was on a temporary hiatus from gigging. Keeping my hand in at that stage with mixing was important and before long I realised how much I enjoyed this type of work.”
Between Sunil’s work as a DJ and his work with Give Us The Night, it’s fair to say he has a pretty hectic schedule. Throw teaching weekly in a college on top of that and it seems nearly unmanageable, yet Sunil manages his frenzied schedule extremely well and I wondered what kept him teaching in Bray with so many other commitments.
“Underneath it, I guess it’s one of my vocations. I do it for the love of it really and because it’s become part of my routine I don’t question it too much. Each year is a new challenge with a new group of students and a new journey beginning. It’s exciting. Yes, often I have too many things going on at once, and teaching can be hard to juggle too, but I’ve always felt like these things, including the campaign, are interlinked. What we’re doing with the campaign is to create more opportunities that will benefit the students. Teaching at BIFE keeps me extra grounded in that way; as much as it may be an extra commitment, it also focuses me more sometimes too.”
Sunil often spoke about the quality of the DJs from the course, and how many students were playing at a professional capacity, just without the crowd. I wondered how Sunil would size up DJs from the course against some international DJs.
“I think the top level of DJs that come from the course are generally as good or better than a lot of DJs I’ve seen play internationally. In Ireland, DJ levels have always been pretty high, it’s something that perhaps we don’t reflect on enough in this country. Ireland is probably in the top 5 European countries for DJing – if you put the best 11 Irish DJs up against most countries, I think you’d see some good results.”
“Part of it is to do with our licensing laws, there’s a greater urgency to how people play as we have less time to do it. I think there’s also something in the air around Bray, which goes back to its hard house days. Bray is Mark Kavanagh and Tim Hannigan’s backyard too, so it is kind of the spiritual home of dance music in Ireland. I don’t think you can do a DJ course in Bray and for the history of the area to not rub off on you in some type of way.”
The course is fundamentally important for the recognition of dance music and electronic music as a core part of Irish music culture. Sunil’s stance on the course’s cultural significance is one that is seeped in passion and understanding of the core values of DJing.
“I think one of things we have done well is to not deviate too much from the original ethos of the course, which is very much skills based, and free from ego. We’re not here to produce superstar DJs, we’re here to help DJs play to a high standard, find their path and hopefully develop a long term career. Certain trends can emerge which we often have to reflect on within the course, and for sure there is a greater emphasis on music-making and all-round career development these days than there used to be.
Dance music becoming more culturally recognised in Ireland is still a work in progress, personally I feel there is more wrong than there is right here at the moment, a lot of which boils down to a lack of access to space(s). The more presence our culture has, the more established and recognised it becomes. If people don’t see it, then it’s like it doesn’t exist and that’s the biggest issue we have to address in Ireland now. We find and create the spaces again, and the culture here can reach new levels. Changes to licensing laws and planning policy will do so much for our culture, and can’t come soon enough.”
I couldn’t help but ask Sunil how he’s found the scene has changed over the course of his time teaching
“These days I think a big extra challenge for upcoming DJs is having to deal with social media and sometimes having to venture outside of their comfort zone in order to sell themselves. Not everyone is cut out for that, and in my experience a lot of DJs just like to keep the head down, and aren’t up for posing or any big fuss. In the early days of me DJing a lot of people didn’t even know what I looked like, it was unimportant. Everything was very much word of mouth.”
“What I think is better nowadays though is that it feels like a lot of DJs are happier for other people’s success, and perhaps don’t look down on others as much based on the music they like. That used to be more of an issue and the scene felt more splintered as a result. It’s definitely something we’ve tried to instill on the course too, to have respect for other people’s music choice and to be ready to learn from others to broaden your musical outlook. I think DJs on the course have become steadily more eclectic, which can give them more options gigs wise too. There are sets and mixes I hear from students today that I don’t think I would’ve heard as much a decade or so ago. The ability to mix it up is a skill a lot of upcoming DJs have down nowadays, and having a more eclectic musical knowledge has a lot to do with it.”
This is without a doubt one of the best courses for anyone interested in upskilling in DJ and production techniques. Find out what some of their previous students had to say, and listen to their mixes below. And if you’ve gotten this far, then make sure to check out the course details and sign up here.
“One of the best decisions I made in my career so far was doing the DJ Techniques & Music Production course in BIFE. Even though I knew the basics of DJing at that stage, I wanted to learn how to produce and more. Right now I’m releasing my own tracks and finally, I’m at a stage where I’m happy with the tracks I’m releasing. I also wouldn’t have picked up vinyl if I didn’t go to BIFE, there were so many days that I was close to giving up but the teachers done such a great job at pushing us to reach our goals. I genuinely can’t credit the teachers enough for their positive attitudes towards music and the knowledge they have within the industry. Most of the knowledge I have now comes from them! The course got me on my own two feet, and that’s what has led me to where I’m at now. For that I am so grateful. There’s still a long way to go, and I will keep working to get to where I want to be. My career so far has been a great journey and that’s where it all started.”
“Nothing but praise for Bray Institute of Further Education, I did the Music Production/DJ course there in ’07 and had a belter. Met friends for life there and learned valuable technical skills from Sunil Sharpe and DJ Tu-Ki. Shout out Ken Harte as well, absolute master of synthesis. Highlight was definitely competing in and winning a DJ battle in Slovakia as part of the course trip, 17 years old and playing records in Subclub Bratislava was a madness. 10/10 experience. BIFE 4EVER”
“BIFE gave me musical knowledge, a best friend, a solid network of some of the country’s best and the confidence I needed to blag myself my first few gigs which set me on my path today. It’s a place where a music lover can feel at home and generally be inspired by other like minded people whether it’s the sound teachers or other students.”
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without the DJ techniques and music production course in BIFE. The teachers have an insane amount of passion and knowledge of music and do a great job at passing this on to their students. It was really inspiring being around like minded people every day, I made some lifelong friends and connections within the Irish music scene.”