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Feel Good Inc.

November 1, 2006
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Self-storage centers usually house unwanted heirlooms and excess furniture, but somewhere in Salt Lake City, there's a storage unit housing a trove of studio equipment: Mackie HR824 monitors, a Roland Juno-106, even a refurbished Neve 1081 pre/EQ. With another album finished and a four-month, 50-date tour on the horizon, Kaskade (aka Ryan Raddon) locked away anything that didn't operate on his laptop or fit into his carry-on bag.

Today, he is in Jackson Hole, Wyo., counting down the days until he starts racking up the frequent-flier miles on tour in support of the third full-length album, Love Mysterious (Ultra, 2006). Relaxing at a secluded lake house, Kaskade took a month off to mentally and physically prepare for the strain of his upcoming schedule. From Labor Day to Christmas, this San Francisco transplant will zigzag across the continent, bouncing over to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in between. “It's important to get the word out there, and the best way to do that is to tour,” he says. “Independent electronic music is totally fan-based, so you have to get out there and hit the streets. That's what I've learned over the past five years.”

The past five years have been very kind to this modest Mormon, but despite the number of flyers his name has been at the top of, it's obvious that fame hasn't gone to his head. “This is everything I always dreamed and hoped and wished for,” he says. Kaskade seems as grateful as he was the last time he spoke to Remix two years ago, describing his career as “blessed” despite the exhausting hours.

It's no surprise that the first notes of Love Mysterious were written on the road. Having played 150 dates last year, Kaskade needed a mobile way to record the early melodies and lyric ideas that later became the songs on this album. “A touring musician needs portability,” he emphasizes. “I was touring with a [Digidesign] Mbox, and then I switched the M-Audio Transit just 'cause it was so stinking small. The Mbox has its own pre's, but I didn't necessarily need to record anything. I was just programming and coming up with ideas. The Transit fits right in my carry-on bag. If I've got hours to kill on a plane or an extra day in a hotel room somewhere, I can work out ideas.”

WAREHOUSE WORK

As the time neared to begin work proper on his next album, Kaskade began to feel the pressure of his elevated status. “I started off playing really small rooms — 200-person venues that were, like, a third full. I could get away with playing really superdeep, sleepy, chill music. But as I got booked into bigger and bigger rooms, it affected my sound quite a bit, and I had to play stuff that was a bit more energetic. I definitely felt like [my next album] needed to evolve into a bigger sound. You start to question your art. What am I trying to create here?”

With that in mind, Kaskade considered which experiments had been the most successful during the production of his last album, In the Moment (Om, 2004). “I recorded a lot of the live percussion on ‘Steppin' Out’ in a big open warehouse,” he recalls. “There's a live drum kit that plays over a syncopated beat, and that was recorded in a huge room with 20-foot ceilings. It sounded cool and lent itself to what I was trying to go for — a more rock, guitar-driven electronic sound.

“Overall, I was going for more of that sound on this record,” Kaskade continues. “So I thought it would be cool to just rent an open warehouse and set up the gear and see what happened. If it didn't work, oh well, scrap the idea and move out. But it did work. Anything that was recorded live — some live bass, live horn — that was all recorded in a big room.” After the annual trip to the Winter Music Conference (during which Kaskade's move from Om to Ultra Records was big news), Kaskade rented a warehouse in Salt Lake City and set up shop for the next seven weeks, using the size of the room and the height of the ceilings to give the songs the bigger sound he was looking for.

PLUG-IN PASSION

A staunch Pro Tools devotee, Kaskade was most excited about Digidesign's new Pro Tools|HD 3 Accel system, which he runs with Pro Tools 6.9 on a G5 Power Mac. The system added power and simplified the MIDI implementation: “In terms of ease of use and programming ability, it's so much easier compared with three years ago when I was working on In the Moment.”

Although HD 3 Accel comes with several plug-in bundles, Kaskade prefers the Access Virus Indigo virtual synthesizer, a plug-in that he integrated with Pro Tools. In all, Kaskade admits that he probably spent 10 grand on plug-ins, but he's quick to gush over his favorites. “If you're doing vocals at all…” Kaskade pauses, at an apparent loss for words. “[Celemony] Melodyne is like… The. Most. Amazing. Tool. Ever. My brain can't even comprehend how it works. I totally freaked out when I saw the demo on the Website. I was like, ‘That can't work. How does it do that?’”

Running a close second, iZotope Ozone 3 earned similar praise: “It's like a compressor, maximizer; it just makes it sound better. It can make drum tracks sound really hot and pop. It's probably the cheapest thing in my studio, and I used it on every song.”

Kaskade also used the Massenburg Designworks High-Rez EQ plug-in on almost every song. “I think this album sounds a lot more processed than anything I've done in the past, and that's because of that EQ,” he says. “It's so transparent compared with any other plug-in EQ that I've heard.”

SHAPE-SHIFTING SOUND

While many DJs use Ableton Live 5 during performances, Kaskade used many of the program's functions during the production process. “The time-stretch thing in there is so cool,” he raves. “If you've got five or six rhythm loops — one's at 92 [bpm] from a hip-hop record, one's at 175 from a drum ‘n’ bass record — you can take the hat from one and the snare from another and the crash noise from the third, and it will see the rhythm, put in points, and then whenever I change the tempo, it will automatically sync up. Instead of cutting and dropping in individual pieces like you do in Pro Tools, I can take all different loops and sync them up on the fly in real time. It would sound like garbage, but that's when you start making it your own. It's very drag-and-drop, see how it sounds, and if you don't like it, try the next thing.”

Although they might have a more electronic feel, most of the songs on Love Mysterious have the signature Kaskade blend of electronic and organic instruments. However, several songs have a distinctly wired sound, such as the slow squelch of “Fake” or the seemingly off-time stutter of the synth line in “All You.” “The timing is just really weird on that one,” Kaskade explains. “It doesn't actually float around. It's locked in, but the way it was programmed, it seemed to sound a lot cooler. I tried it more syncopated, and it just didn't have the same effect. I figured, let's offset this and see what happens, and it was a weird kind of groove, but you still want to bob your head to it. It just worked 'cause the drums are still really big. It gave the low end more room to do different things.”

Kaskade's Salt Lake City warehouse afforded him the opportunity to experiment with the drum programming, but because of the cavernous ceilings above him, he referenced much of his work in headphones and outside of his makeshift studio. “You can't monitor in a really large room — you'll be like, wait, did I put reverb on that? And it's like, oh, no, that's that room,” he jokes. “So I did have to check myself quite a bit, which was cool, 'cause it gave me more of an opportunity to be gung ho. I think people rely too much on their room, like, ‘I know how my room sounds, man. It's cool. I've been here two years.’ Then you get the record done and you listen to it in a bunch of places and you're like, ‘Wait, I don't know my room.’ So I was checking myself along the way, playing it in the car, in headphones on the road with me, just checking it in different environments. It kept me on my toes.”

VOICES CARRY

Kaskade also relies on a second set of ears when he's working in the studio. He and co-writer Finn Bjarnson have worked together for each of the Kaskade albums. “Finn was an engineer for an R&B band that I did a couple of remixes for eight or nine years ago,” he recalls. “I had this idea to do this Kaskade thing, and I wanted to have a lot of players, so I approached him. He was the engineer on that session, but I noticed that I was writing a lot of the music with him. He'd be like, ‘Hey, how about this?’ And I was like, ‘Dude, you're not an engineer. You're a songwriter.’ We definitely have a symbiotic relationship that works really well.”

When it came time to record vocals, he and Bjarnson moved into a more confined space and began choosing vocalists to contribute. All 11 songs on the album contain vocals — some courtesy of new voices such as Marcus Bentley and SunSun, while others like Becky Jean Williams and Joslyn are old favorites.

As in albums past, Kaskade and Bjarnson wrote all of the lyrics. “I've only worked a few times where I had a track and gave it to a vocalist and said, ‘Hey, write something over this,’” he explains. “[On the] last album, I did that with Colette, but on this album, I didn't do that for any of the songs. All the lyrical and melody ideas were prewritten before the vocalist came in.”

Kaskade still prefers to use the Blue Dragonfly microphone and the Manley VoxBox or the Avalon U5 preamp, with one exception. “I really like Joslyn's voice through a Brauner VM1 mic,” he says. “Vocals are such a weird thing. It may be an exact science — I'm sure there are plenty of books out there written on it — but the Brauner just seems to catch the subtlety of her voice a little bit better. It just sexes it up a bit. ‘Distance’ is a much softer, deeper song, so I really wanted to catch the subtleties of what she's doing.”

When choosing which vocalist would sing on which song, Kaskade and Bjarnson considered how different voices would impact the song's mood. “SunSun pitched me a demo when I was in New York,” Kaskade explains. “I thought her voice was interesting and could work. I came up with the idea for ‘Be Still’ and thought her voice would cut through. That song is a wall of sound. It's very, very thick, so I was looking for something that could sit on top of it.”

That kind of careful consideration is perhaps what makes Kaskade so successful. Kaskade's ability to combine the synthetic sound of electronic studio gear with the natural vibe of instruments and vocals is perhaps his greatest strength. “I think some instrumentation lends itself to work with an electronic sound,” he considers. “I come from a more electronic background, but I still listen to a lot of pop and rock stuff. I think if I had written this album 10 years ago, it would have been way more electronic sounding. Here I am three records in, and I think I'm just barely touching on that and trying to understand what works. I think it goes back to when you're coming up with the idea for a song and how you're hearing it, molding the two worlds. I'm doing everything to make that work, from taking really good care of how the record is mixed, to the way the stuff is all recorded in the same room to make sure it all gels together.”

Kaskade has a long-standing relationship with his preferred mix engineer, Mike Roskelley. “That's all this guy does,” Kaskade says. “He doesn't have anything else in the room except for the monitors, the screen and this floating keyboard, so he can get an accurate reading in a really true-sounding room. That was my final test.”

THE LOCAL PERSPECTIVE

Kaskade certainly doesn't shield his sentimental streak. As a father and husband, he's always relieved when his tour schedule brings him home to San Francisco (most recently, he did three gigs at the city's premiere dance club, Ruby Skye). Despite the fact that San Francisco had an undeniable influence on Kaskade musically, he hesitates to say that he's shaped the Bay Area's sound in any way. “When I travel the world, people are like, “Ohmigosh, you embody San Francisco,' but I'm like, ‘What? That's crazy talk.’ There are definitely similarities among myself and a lot of other dance producers in the scene, like Miguel [Migs], Jay-J, Chris Lum, Julius Papp and Mark Farina. All these guys are making house music, but I think if you listen to their stuff and my stuff, it's pretty different. Yes, it's dance and it's more musical — I think that's definitely a San Francisco trait — but beyond that, there aren't a lot of similarities.”

Kaskade believes strongly in the vitality of the city's clubs and talent. He's impressed by up and comers like Claude VonStroke and digs small venues like Pink, which are supporting underground talent.

“I've traveled to all these other cities,” Kaskade says. “It seems like rock ‘n’ roll has had a huge effect on the dance scene and kind of crippled it a bit. There's so many all-age or underage clubs doing punk and rock and indie-rock, so a lot of those kids who would have gone to raves and become cultivated into the dance scene have disappeared. Or they're getting sucked up into hip-hop or pop stuff, and they're not looking beyond the surface. That said, I still think San Francisco has an amazing scene, and we're still completely spoiled by the talent and everyone who's a part of that scene. I'll say this; a really bad night in San Francisco is like an amazing night anywhere else.”

KASKADE'S WAREHOUSE WARES

Computer, DAWs, recording hardware

Apple Power Mac G5 Dual 2 GHz computer
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD 3 Accel system, Pro Tools 6.9 software
Ableton Live 5 software

Interfaces

Digidesign 192 I/O, Mbox
M-Audio Transit
PreSonus Central Station

Keyboards, soft synths

Access Virus Indigo soft synth
Korg MicroKontrol keyboard controller, MicroKorg synth
M-Audio GForce Minimonsta, GForce Oddity soft synths
Native Instruments Komplete 2 soft synths
Propellerhead Reason 3.0 software
Roland Juno-106 synth
Sequential Circuits Prophet 600 synth

Plug-ins

Antares Auto-Tune, Microphone Modeler
Bomb Factory Classic Compressors Bundle, Moogerfooger Bundle
Celemony Melodyne
Crane Song Phoenix
Digidesign ReVibe
Focusrite D2/D3 Bundle
iZotope Ozone 3, Spectron
Line 6 Amp Farm, Echo Farm
Massenburg Designworks High-Resolution EQ
McDSP FilterBank, MC2000
Prosoniq Orange Vocoder
Serato Pitch ‘n Time Pro
Sony Oxford EQ, OXF-R3 Dynamics
SoundToys TDM Effects Bundle
Trillium Lane Labs TL Space
URS Classic Console Compressor
Waves Gold Bundle, Renaissance Maxx Bundle

Mics, preamps, EQ

Avalon U5 preamp
Blue Dragonfly mic
Brauner VM1 mic
Manley VoxBox preamp
Neve 1081 pre/EQ (Brent Averill refurbished)

Monitors

Mackie HR824s
Meyer Sound HD-1s

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