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Sound Cycles

November 1, 2007
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For five albums, Adam Dorn, aka Mocean Worker, has developed a unique approach to sampling. Here he explains the workflow for his songs on Cinco de Mowo! (2007, Mowo!), including the initial sampling, creating instruments and playing parts, recording other musicians, effecting and mixing all the tracks and finally, adapting the material for the stage. The signature sound of the album is a mixture of dusty old jazz samples mixed with freshly recorded material made to sound old, all arranged in a way that updates big-band swing for modern dancefloors.

PUT THE NEEDLE ON THE RECORD

Adam Dorn, aka Mocean Worker

First off, naming source material or actual samples is a real no-no. I do sample, but I can't go into who's who and what's what. I tend to let records play for about a minute to two minutes. I record all audio into Pro Tools, using it as if it's a sampler. I never ever have the intention of looping anything as any kind of specific phrase. Instead, everything goes through the main weapon of choice, Propellerhead ReCycle software. The way I think I differentiate myself from other producers is that I will slice up a 2-minute piece of audio to the maximum amount of slices I can get. I think the limitation is 93 slices per Dr.Rex player inside of Propellerhead Reason. I ReCycle everything to the point where there's literally only a horn hit or one trumpet note.

The fun of creating a song is in going nuts with sounds. I try to make each song the result of a separate sort of “sample party.” Each song will have its own palette. Every once in a while, I do go back to “old reliable,” a drum beat I love that I ReCycled and put on “Shake Ya Boogie” on Cinco de Mowo! and on “Right Now” from Enter the Mowo! (2004, Hyena). But I generally don't do that. The fun of the writing process is finding different sounds and seeing how they work in different contexts. “Son of Sanford” on Cinco de Mowo! is the result of sampling tons of totally different genres of music, including all these horrible dub records — really bad dub records no one would ever want to hear. They're like “E” sides, like dub records made by Polish guys. But there are all these weird fills and great-sounding snares, and I would never have gotten that kind of groove if I hadn't looked to different things.

I prepared about 15 GB of samples for Cinco de Mowo! Once I start writing a track, I just randomly pick things to see what will work, what series of notes I can turn into another melody or how I can take something originally in one key and pitch it down a fifth to slow it down and change not only the key, but also the feel of it. Basically, I create a sonic palette of snippets of audio. I love ReCycle because you can get to the micro level of a sound recording, at which point you're not really using a phrase, you're just using a snare drum or a ride sample. A lot of times I'll sample upright bass parts. From a jazz context, a walking bass line is usually a bass note on every quarter note. So, if I ReCycle on every quarter note, I have basically every note that exists in Western music, and I can put that across the keyboard. I'm getting to the micro level and playing all these samples as instruments. And I pride myself on always re-pitching things or taking things from ballads and putting them in uptempo songs. There's so much stuff going on in my tracks, but the goal is just to make them sound fun and simple. But they're kind of intricate puzzles. I'm tuning everything and making sure everything's related to each other, which has more to do with music theory and my musical training than it does with making a beat.

My thing is I chop everything up, but I know what key the things I'm chopping up are in and how they relate to the chords I've written. It's fun when all of the sudden, I'm chopping up a musician who I'm psyched to have be part of my record, but I also know exactly how to apply what's been dealt with.

I create instruments out of long audio phrases and try to use as obscure stuff as I can find. And I try to absolutely recontextualize and change it to the point where I would defy anyone to tell me what the source is. For me, the Puff Daddy school of sampling is “let's take a David Bowie song and put a different lyric on top.” The polar opposite is like DJ Shadow or RJD2: recontextualizing samples and creating totally new works based on found sounds.

SOLO IN THE STUDIO

When you couple ReCycle with Reason and open Dr.Rex players and assign all those sliced sounds, each REX player is effectively its own instrument. That's the main reason I use Reason. It's such an incredible sample playback device, and it's such a quick, efficient tool. It doesn't give you two million options; it just does what it says it does.

It's funny: I have a really powerful Pro Tools|HD 3 Accel rig, and I love it. I was so proud that I was able to buy it, but at the end of the day, I do everything in Reason and then mix in Pro Tools. Marty Brumbach, my mix engineer, and I make the records together. It's gotten to the point now where what I want is so together in Reason — in terms of effecting, filtering and putting sounds together — that Marty's not even opening effects in Pro Tools now. The only plug-ins he opens are EQs; there are no reverbs, delays or chorus because I do everything in Reason, print stems, and then he'll go to town on the mix.

Unlike many applications, in Reason when you bounce to disk, anything that's on the sound in the chain is bounced, like a REX player chained to a bunch of effects, And unlike in Pro Tools, where you have to do it in real time, Reason will bounce it however fast your processor can do it. A lot of times the key components in the writing are actually how the sounds are effected, which affects the way I play the parts on my keyboard. So I play into effects and EQ, and that alters the way I play.

Imagine a bunch of big-band samples plotted out across the keyboard. But the samples are pitched up a minor third with a dotted eighth-note delay and EQ on it, and you're in a tempo that's 20 bpm different that the original composition. You will start playing stuff that's completely unrelated to the original source. The samples are virtually unidentifiable at that point and more like notes on a keyboard. That exploration means finding out that there's no difference between doing this in the ultratechnical way and playing jazz in a trio. There's a jazz aspect to this. I sit down and improvise, but I always record to a click at a set tempo, otherwise it's such a nightmare to figure out the tempo of something after the fact.

I basically use Reason as my entire writing environment and instrument environment. And when I get tracks to a certain point, I ask, “What's missing? Who needs to play on it or what can I play on it?” On my last couple of records, a lot of things you think are samples are not. I love having that line where it's blurry as to what's what. That differentiates my music, and I play a lot of instruments. So I'll record myself and a bunch of friends, and I'm lucky enough to have people like Herb Alpert or Marcus Miller play. Sometimes I literally don't remember if something's a sample, which is kind of cool.

LI'L HELP FROM MY FRIENDS

To prepare for other musicians to record, I'll create a basic track in Reason and then bounce everything out to Pro Tools because you can't record audio into Reason. That's where Marty comes in. We'll have guys play into vintage microphones and through vintage EQs. Unfortunately, I don't know the names of everything; I'm kind of a forgetful geek. But we also used tons of plug-ins and EQs inside Pro Tools: all the Bomb Factory plug-ins and the Waves Platinum bundle. Those tools are incredible because you can do almost anything you want. The plug-ins have gotten to the point where sometimes it's easier to use them than outboard gear because you can open your session anywhere, as long as you have your iLok with you. I can't bring a Fairchild compressor with me anywhere; that thing weighs like 300 lb.

Except for saxophonist Cochemea Gastelum, anyone who plays for me, including Herb and Marcus, either sends me stems (stereo files) or I record them. Then I ReCycle everything, open the original Reason session, create their parts inside Reason and then bounce back out because it's easier that way than to try to make a comp in Pro Tools. I figure, here are these amazing musicians; if I chop up their phrases and trigger them myself, I'll be more musical with it than just placing the audio on a grid in the Pro Tools Edit window, which isn't as fun. It's much cooler when someone's playing to trigger the sounds, change the phrasing and play things in a different order. “Shake Ya Boogie” is a good example because there are some samples, but then Steven Bernstein plays trumpet, and we distress it and blend it with samples. That adds more of a punch and a richer, more modern sound mixed with something that's old and maybe not such a high-quality recording. That track is made out of the smallest bits of things played in such an insanely random order. I basically wrote the groove to that song and then played little mini snippets of things until I discovered a hook. I didn't even expect it; I was just messing around. There's always improvising to get the melodies, which is fun.

SPIT & POLISH

To make new recordings sound older, it's about understanding basic concepts of sound. I happen to think recordings sound just as good or better from older periods based on the technology they had. It's just making sure things are in mono and making sure you take out certain ultrahigh and ultralow frequencies. It's all about carving the right amount of space in a sound. Remember in the mid-'90s, on every record out of Bristol, England, the voice sounded like it came through a megaphone, like Portishead? It's that concept, but applying it to a big band or a sax or clarinet part. Some of Marcus' bass clarinet stuff on “Brown Liquor” I pitched way up to sound shrill and high, and some I left sounding normal, so you'd know a real person's playing. That's a song where you can't tell what's what.

It's not that technical or difficult — it's really just EQ and filtering. NPR QUOTEd me talking about “murderizing” samples — I'll filter stuff to no end. So a clarinet part can sound like it's from the '20s with the right EQ and the right amount of static added. For example, in Reason's Dr.Rex player, take the LP 12 lowpass filter and lower it to take all the highs out. Mixed with the right drum sounds and other instruments, it will sound like a muffled old horn. I also love Reason's RV7000 reverb unit. I use it all the time with the DDL-1 delay unit because they both kind of act as a combo reverb/delay. It's that simple, and therein lies my secret: I just mess with stuff until things happen. I'm always more concerned with the notes and the composition than the sounds.

What's interesting about instruments is it's not about the instrument, but the person who's playing it. The sound and the personality come from hiring the right guys or letting the right person improvise. When someone is playing, I don't really have a specific thing I do or ask regarding sound or sound treatment. Duke Ellington had this amazing band in the mid-'50s, and he used to say that he wrote for each musician. The sound comes from the people. So when Herb, Cochemea, Marcus and all these guys play on the record, they bring a sound with them. I don't have any specific trick; I let them do their thing. And because they know me as a musician and we play together, they trust me not to make them look like chumps.

PLAY THAT FUNKY MUSIC

I used to make live shows really hard on myself; I triggered everything myself in a one-man show, and nobody understood what I was doing. It was like, “Hey dude, you're a killer DJ.” So the best way to get around that was to hire people. Then it's not an electronic show; it's just a concert. I put a lot of pressure on myself to not get stuck in the whole “electronic shows are boring” bit because they really don't have to be.

The band is the shit. It's trumpet, tenor sax, piano, drums, percussion, and I play bass. I have Ableton Live running on an Apple laptop playing the bare minimum of stems from the songs that I know we can't re-create. A lot of people still hate seeing a laptop, so I wanted people to see a laptop but really hear a band and not make that face like somebody just farted.

I've had Live for years, but I've never really done a ton of things with it, other than time-stretching vocals for remixes. So Ableton hooked me up with Matt Moldover in New York, and he came over and schooled me so many things. Now when I use the program to actually write, I'll open Live with Reason running in ReWire mode and go to town. Live and Reason together are ill! Live is just such a deep, amazing program that I couldn't get my head around. Now I get it and understand why people love that program so much. It's brilliant and so stable.

But the thing is, I made all the stems for Live having not really played with the band, and when we rehearsed, halfway through some songs, I was stopping the laptop because we didn't need it. The band is so funky. As the composer, it's amazing for me to have a roomful of musicians playing this music, which was already a hybrid of live and sampled stuff anyway. When we play, we really play it. Guys solo and we BREAK down and do different grooves. To me, it's the single most exciting thing that's ever happened in my Mocean Worker career because we're like a party band. People leave the show, and they've lost weight. It's just cool to see the music come to life. “Only the Shadows Know” is like a funky Blaxploitation theme. It's only a 2-minute song from the last record, but when we play it live, it sounds like Massive Attack meets P-Funk. It's so funky but still really dark and mysterious. The computer is in the whole time, but it's like a perfect combination of technology meeting musicians.

On “Siss Boom Bah!” the flute part is an integral part of the song. It's a Rahsaan Roland Kirk snippet of audio that I have the rights to use. I had to keep it because it's the melody from the song. And it's just such a trip to be like, “Man, we're playing with Rahsaan Roland Kirk!” He died in 1977, but shit, my dad produced 13 of his records; he's like a family member. I set it up with some percussive elements also running, so the drummer hears a click track and the mix in his ear from the FireWire audio interface. Basically I prepared the stems guessing what musicians would want in and want out, and I messed up some of them. I had to redo them because they were too thick, and my guys couldn't do their jobs. Now, people really dig the band; they really have a good time.

To hear some snippets of the songs Adam talked about and some excerpts from an Adam Dorn interview, go to www.remixmag.com.

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