Chromeo: The 'White Women' Studio Sessions

On White Women, the Canadian duo explore new musical influences and sound design tricks, yet maintain their modern electrofunk sound.
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On White Women, the Canadian duo explore new musical influences and sound design tricks, yet maintain their modern electrofunk sound.

On White Women, the Canadian duo explore new musical influences and sound design tricks, yet maintain their modern electrofunk sound. • FOR MORE than a decade, Chromeo has been ahead of the retro curve. Now, on the group’s fourth full-length, White Women, the follow-up to 2010’s Business Casual, Chromeo continue to show that you can teach the old school new tricks.

Made up of childhood friends David “Dave 1” Macklovitch and Patrick “P-Thugg” Gemayel, Chromeo debuted in 2003; already established as tastemakers and hip-hop producers in their native Montreal, they were offered an opportunity to release music through local acquaintance Tiga—a producer, DJ, and head of Turbo Recordings. The resulting experiment, exemplified by the single “Needy Girl,” introduced the Chromeo template: playing it cool against warm analog synths.

Initially tagged with Jheri curl funk, nu_new jack swing, 8-bit pastiche artists and other such electro-funk derivatives, Chromeo evoked memories of Cameo, Rockwell, Zapp, the System, Phil Collins, and Yaz. Singing through a Rocktron Banshee Talk Box for pitch modulation well before the commercial breakthrough of T-Pain and his Auto-Tune oscillation, Chromeo made it clear that most important filter when using keyboards was the human. Assembling a cache of vintage synthesizers and rhythm machines, Chromeo recombined each component’s DNA into hybrid grooves bridging eras and tonal arrangements.

Chromeo approached White Women as an opportunity to incorporate wider influences, including vintage disco, ABBA-to-Scissor Sisters glam revival, Trevor Horn, ELO, Roxette, Vampire Weekend, and Kendrick Lamar, next to standards such as Purple Rain-era Prince, Midnight Star, and some surprising masters of joyful melancholy.

“We’re influenced by more than just one type of old record,” says Macklovitch. “So, Drake came out with his record at 100 BPM, which is such a sexy tempo, and I felt we really should do one like that, too, but with our harmonies, humor, and a twist of earthy nostalgia, kind of like those blue-collar American songs that had videos shot in black and white: Don Henley’s ‘Boys of Summer,’ Marc Cohn’s ‘Walking in Memphis,’ that sort of thing. That’s where the song ‘Old 45s’ came from, which kind of has a ZZ Top ‘Rough Boy’ thing in the solo, too. We heard the chorus chords when we were in the studio with [Los Angeles production duo] Oliver, and we build it from there.”

Indeed, White Women is the first Chromeo album where Macklovitch and Gemayel actively courted outside opinions (from friends and management) as well as some co-production (from the Oliver duo) to craft an album as quirky and relevant to gearheads as it is universal for modern pop fans.

“P and I have done three albums in a complete vacuum, and we wanted the challenge of integrating feedback early on, because we felt like we needed to improve, for there to be a qualitative leap [in songwriting and sound quality] on this record, the same way there was between our first record [2004’s She’s in Control] and [2007’s] Fancy Footwork, our second album,” says Macklovitch. “And we figured we needed to spend more time writing together to do that, so P moved to New York to do this album. We set up a studio in Brooklyn and started working full-time together, while on previous records he’d be in Montreal, I’d be in New York, we’d do writing on our own ends, and then we’d get together and exchange ideas.

“In this case we did everything together from the jump, and with no time constraints or scheduling crunches we spent double, triple, or more time on every aspect of the record,” continues Macklovitch. “Where we might have previously tracked vocals in one or two days, we did it in a week. Sure, we’ve always accumulated more gear between albums, but it’s not about just using more; it’s more about spending time doing each aspect of the record more thoroughly. We work in a very traditional way where all the steps are separate: We do the writing, then the arranging, then the recording, then the producing, and only then the mixing. We still start out sequencing in Cakewalk on a Pentium II from the late ’90s because it makes us focus on the raw sound and arrangement instead of how much we can treat a wave file.”

Flanking the workstation, sitting floor to ceiling, are painstakingly maintained acquisitions, including the Roland Juno-106 and Jupiter-8; Moog Prodigy, Minimoog, and Memorymoog; Elka Synthex; Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, Pro-One, and DrumTraks; Dave Smith Instruments Prophet ’08; Linn Electronics LM-1; Oberheim DMX; Yamaha DX5; Korg PolySix and Mono/Poly; Oberheim OB-X; Wurlitzer 206A; and Clavia Nord Modular G2, to name a few. Gemayel, who refers to the gear in highly textural terminologies (aka describing the “taste” of various oscillators), emphasizes the importance for musicians to begin the songwriting process with a thorough knowledge of each synth’s intrinsic character.

I’m the guy who goes to the studio, turns all the synths on, and puts one oscillator on every synth, just a pure saw tone, because I want to know how different that sawtooth or pulse wave sounds from synth to synth,” he says. “These are building blocks of your song, so I think it’s great to just take a MIDI controller, assign all the keyboards to a sequencer, close your eyes, change tracks, and press the same note and A/B between all the oscillators.

“You need to know how warm or cold each oscillator is; if it’s a very stable, digitally controlled, colder sound or a plush and mushy one,” continues Gemayel. “I’d rather know the synth personalities and how they relate to and support each other so I can pick exactly what I need for a stack, rather than trying to compensate for what’s missing later. If it’s too trebly, midrange, if it has too much buzz, I’d pick a different synth or add one to complement rather than be back at square one when it’s time to mix, and taking high or low out makes you add EQ or effects to compensate.”

Drum machines are selected for the character of their inherent sequencers, though no tracks are the result of a single machine. Drawing on the DrumTraks (the start of many varying demos, thanks to interchangeable EPROM sound bank chips), the LM-1 (also augmented by numerous EPROMs), a DMX modified to include sample pitching, as well as an Akai MPC5000 and other samplers and rhythm and percussion generators (including Moog and Korg keyboards), Macklovitch and Gemayel compile patterns reprogramming kicks, snares, etc. from a variety of sources on each track.

For example, “Jealous (I Ain't With It),” the opening track on White Women, includes a detuned LM-1 rim shot (think Prince’s “When Doves Cry”), there as an accent, a wink to those in the know, but not part of an entire pattern intended to sound retro. The entire track is an example of Macklovitch and Gemayel’s precisely-tuned-chords-meets-Pro Tools mentality for White Women.

“Jealous,” like several of Chromeo’s recent songs, began with Macklovitch introducing an aesthetic agenda and melodic top line, at which point Gemayel composed various potential progressions to support the piece. At that point the two worked diligently to voice the idea in a direct, radio-friendly manner without being too harmonically straightforward. Compiling very Chromeo-like melodies and “Ghostbusters-type synths” after an atypical four-on-the-floor intro, the two took the demo to L.A., where Oliver tweaked the arrangement, added some embellishments, suggested guitar parts, and used virtual synths to bring out high end that wasn’t present in the hardware.

“We’re not against plug-ins; we just use them to add shimmer to a vintage stack or provide as close to an original sound as possible,” says Gemayel. “Like on ‘Over Your Shoulder,’ where there’s the ‘Fly Like an Eagle’ delayed effect with an ascending scale. I saw in a video that came from an ARP 2600 into a [Roland RE-201] Space Echo, but I only have the Arturia [ARP2600 V] emulation. So I get it as close as possible to the sound and send the output into an amp and re-amp it into Pro Tools with an analog Space Echo.

“I’m very adamant about using gear the way it was meant to be, so if I have an emulation I need to use when my hardware is having tuning issues, I’ll take out everything post-oscillator not found on the original and send it to a real amp [often the Fender Hot Rod Deluxe III, Fender ’65 Twin Reverb, or Roland JC-120] to get a sound as dry and raw as possible.”

While a good 50 percent of White Women was tracked live through a compact board into Pro Tools (including keyboard solos and portamento punch-ins), even the parts that weren’t maintain a balance of sequence and swing. If a motif is to be looped repeatedly, Gemayel will often play it into MIDI for four bars but not quantize it. And, Gemayel jokes, Chromeo wouldn’t have a career without the ability to work the mod wheel.

David Macklovitch (left) and Peter Gemayel As for layering, the choice of synth bass or live bass would dictate the next instrument selection, to keep the initial impulse pristine. The goal is a defined, almost rigid pocket with little more than some Prophet ’08 or Nord G2, comped to provide subbass reinforcement. From there chords, pads, and other patches are layered. Finally, Les Paul or Fender Strat (effected by little more than Boss stompboxes and internal amp reverb/chorus/sustain) would be tracked through an SSL preamp, Neve strip, or Tube-Tech compressor, and little trademark keyboard flourishes and unisons would be added. Vocals came last, tracked commonly through a Neumann TLM-103 for Talk Box and a Manley microphone for natural subharmonic accentuation/attenuation of Macklovitch’s voice.

“P and I will take forever on sound design because we don’t want to have to polish a turd when it comes to mixing,” says Macklovitch. “Tracks that are unmixed sound like the same thing without reverb … it’s less wide, less stereo image, less low on the kicks, less high on the top end, and less reverb, but the song is there. When I’m recording and arranging, we’ll do a rough mix in Pro Tools, but we have a rule that we don���t put on any plug-ins, nothing. It’s got to sound good on a rough mix, just settled through the faders. Some people record with reverb on their vocals, but I track with nothing, because if it will sound decent like that it will only sound better with effects.”

Gemayel says Talk Box and “guitarmonies” are the few subgroups where Chromeo may extensively premix during recording, being careful careful to pan and level without messing up the harmonic build. For everything else, Chromeo concentrated on working with an engineer to strip any hiss or hum evident between notes and then took the sessions to Dave Bascombe (Depeche Mode, Peter Gabriel, Tears for Fears) for mixing.

Set up on an SSL 4000 G+ 64-channel console in London’s Sphere Studios, Bascombe sat with Macklovitch to brighten and compress tracks, concentrating more on enhancement than carving things out.

“The stuff was recorded so well, with everything in the right place, you pushed the faders up and you were halfway there already,” reflects Bascombe. “And Dave was incredibly analytical in a good way and communicated the little changes he wanted immediately. We used the SSL compression for getting drum punch and we used some valve-y outboard gear–Pultecs, Fairchilds, the Chandler Limited EMI Curve Bender–when something like guitar needed a helping hand to stand out in the mix. We worked with some overdrive and subtle distortions, splitting signal into dry and distorted and then blending, and with most of the parts being monophonic with everything in its own well-defined space, it wasn’t particularly challenging to hollow out room where needed.”

Using a hybrid setup, Bascombe applied some sidechaining in Pro Tools and digitally processed tricky changes like riding syllables in the vocal or auto-panning, but much of his process was translating a feel through the faders. “When we had everything sitting as a cool balance, Dave would ask me to do a pass riding the faders on the automation, so if we had a static synth pad, we’d just feel it and push it up in the gaps of the vocals as it seemed natural.”

With the SSL and the album being mixed to a Mark Spitz ATR 1/2-inch machine, then printed back in the box at 96 kHz through Lavry Gold converters, Bascombe bypassed much of his signature mix bus processing. While a fan of the UAD Ampex ATR-102, UAD Studer A800, and Waves Kramer mastering tape recorder emulations, he skipped much of that, while applying some Avid MDW Hi-Res Parametric EQ or Sonnox Oxford EQ, as well as iZotope multiband limiting.

Ultimately, though, vocals took the most sculpting, aided by SoundToys’ EchoBoy plug-in and an actual EMT 140 plate reverb. Sprinkling that across the board, Bascombe and Macklovitch got depth and resonance without clouding the picture.

“It brought back memories of how I used to do things 20 years ago, having the artist there working on an analog desk, having the ergonomics to make fast, creative changes,” says Bascombe. “Having Dave there to go over the details and sign off on every mix was wonderful; we didn’t have to go back, exchange files remotely and redo anything over and over, as can often be the case.”

The use of tactile feedback to reinforce sonic presence slots in nicely with the overriding Chromeo philosophy, and White Women exudes both consistency and variety, as intended. Running through how he designed the song sequence, Macklovitch reiterates the importance of dialing in a vibe without being chained to a “purist” mentality.

“It starts with all these poppy songs, then there’s a middle section that gets moody … there’s the song featuring Solange that’s almost like a movie soundtrack, then the song ‘Play the Fool,’ with a heavily analog coda, then it almost goes Vangelis for a second. Then there’s a piano ballad and something closer to the ’90s, almost a George Michael thing, then it ends almost disco. We wanted to explore different moods and influences we hadn’t tapped, but it was always just as important to sound current, because the conversation we’re part of will always be a modern one.” 

Tony Ware is a writer and editor based outside of Washington, D.C.

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Read interview outtakes with P Thugg.