Whenever you do something creative, there is a niggling voice in your ear, like a tiny buzzing mosquito, that questions: Is this any good? Ema Jolly, known in musical circles as Emika, had that buzz in her ear for much of the recording of her latest album, Dva (Ninja Tune). Recorded at the British-born producer’s home in Berlin, Germany, as well as with the City Of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra in the Czech Republic, Dva steps resolutely away from the dubstep that Emika became synonymous with on her self-titled debut.
Executive produced by the Bomb Squad’s Hank Shocklee, he of Pubic Enemy production fame, Dva taps into Emika’s classical musical training as well as her music technology training. She spent her formative years taking piano lessons and earned a creative music technology degree at university. Whether synthesizers or strings make her sounds, Emika balances the cold with the warm. Fitting just as easily in a sit-down theatre as on a dancefloor, Dva touches on R&B, electro, and symphonic elements all at once.
Sparkling in the setting sun on the rooftop of Ninja Tune’s Los Angeles headquarters, Emika’s glamazon exterior belies her inner musical nerd—the one that once worked as a sound designer for Native Instruments. Dressed in all black with mesh accents and dragging a wheelie with all her gear, Emika walks the enviable tightrope of diva and dork with marked elegance.
What’s the studio set-up you have at home?
I’ve got three Macs with different things installed and I go between them. I should just have a hub and have a key that works on all of them, but I’ve got an old one, a not so old one, and a new one. They all have different operating systems, they’re all at different phases in their lives, and they’re still working. Macs force you to update everything all the time, but there comes a point when they poison your system and force you to buy a new one. If you’ve got a working Mac with a bunch of stuff on it that you always use, just leave it.
What is on each of the Macs?
My most recent one, MacBook Air, has Ableton 8 on it, which I have on the road with me. Logic’s my main thing. I’ve got different plug-ins on different Macs: FabFilter plug-ins and a bunch of really powerful vintage plug-ins. I’ve got my massive collection of drum samples which I’ve had for years. It’s from the time before packs were normal or used a lot. My friends and I used to go record shopping and sample a lot of beats from funk records. Also, I had some friends that used to make beats and you can swap stuff. That whole beat making culture faded away over the last five years. It was replaced by synthesizers. And I’ve got loads of piano recordings on my laptop because that’s what I always take to my parents’ house to record on.
You play the piano at your parents’ place and bring it back with you?
Yeah, and sample it. I usually have that plugged in as a drive in my studio computer and then I can just hop across and get recordings from it.
How do you know what to play when you are at the piano?
I just jam. There’s some amazing stuff, but I don’t know what to do with it. It’s been on there for five years. I leave it there because there might be that one night when I’m looking for that one thing and it’s right there, waiting for me.
Have a lot of those piano recordings found themselves onto Dva?
Piano is on most of it. Often, piano is the first thing I start with and I sample it and cut it up and make it work with the beat, and it ends up sounding like a layer. You can get everything set up on the piano. You know the root note, the top note, the harmony. You can change the chord around a lot easier than programming something in.
Other than at your home, the only other place your recorded was with the City Of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Why did you choose them?
They’re cheap. David Lynch uses them. Polanski has used them. I know a lot of their client list is from Hollywood because they’re really cheap. They’re amazing, but there’s no musicians union there so they just take whatever they can get. They’ve got no protection. They just get their session fee.
Did you have the two songs they recorded, “Hush Interlude” and “Dem Worlds” written beforehand?
Yeah, it took ages. My old-school teacher from when I was 15 helped me put the scores together, get all the notation accurate. I was really nervous. I put all my budget into two pieces of music and one day of recording. I didn’t want to screw anything up and I thought it’s better to get a professional score writer involved to help with the arrangements.
What did you have before you went to your teacher?
I had the whole music written and recorded. The main version was done on my synth. I made a really nice pad pre-set, which inspired the song and I just hit record. It’s the first time I’ve worked in that way where I’ve improvised. Normally everything is really crafted. Before I turn anything on I know exactly how I’m going to make the song, how I’m going to make the sound, why I’m making it that way, and what instruments I want to use.
“Dem Worlds,” is the first piece of music where I felt like I tapped into something. That was the beginning of the whole album. That feeling, it was so wonderful and so free. I listen to the song and there’s no beat, there’s no real bassline, there’s no chorus, there’s no ambition to be something successful. It’s just beautiful. I found some real magic in that whole five-minute moment and felt like I connected—for the first time—with my musician self.
With all the years you studied music in a traditional fashion you never felt that connection?
I always tried to do original compositions when I was studying piano, but they hate stuff like that. It’s about performing, being able to recite things, sight-reading, and understanding theory. The classical world really discourages composers. I composed 1,000 mini-piano pieces when I was younger and I went to as few lessons as possible in school.
What about when you studied music technology or during your time with Native Instruments, you never felt that musician connection?
I was really obsessed with the studio as my instrument. I wanted to prove, to myself, that I could not only use all this technology, but craft a signature sound, so audiences could recognize my work with this generic technology. The majority of my adult life was spent obsessing about sound, production, and gear. That was the moment where I discovered how being a musician feels and it’s quite different to how a sound designer works.
Did all this help conveying your ideas to the orchestra?
Everything I had learned about harmony, instruments, the orchestra came into what I was doing with that piece. That is when I was grateful I had been kicked through school doing all of that stuff. I re-composed that piece using this horrible synth, the EXS24 preset patch from Logic, just to get the MIDI down. And then I gave the MIDI file to my teacher who put it into Sibelius and made it into proper scores, quite a simple copy job in a way.
“Hush Interlude” has Michaela Srumova, the Czech soprano’s vocals on it. Did you record your vocals for “Dem Worlds” at the time of recording?
I was being the producer on the day and was too nervous to sing in the way that I sing with all these classical musicians. I need to have everything close-miked. So I thought, it will be cool, I’ll do it at home. It took me weeks. I kept losing confidence. It’s this little vocal ambient line, but it took me ages. It was super difficult because you have the complete stereo master file or mix file sounding amazing and you have to try somehow put yourself back into that room. I didn’t realize how hard that was going to be. I ended up playing the music through the speakers behind me trying to imitate the fact that there were musicians behind me. I recorded that sound from the speakers into the mic as well because it was the only way I could do it. I made everything a bit too cloudy in the low-mids because everything was doubled through my mic. But it was the only way I could get my voice to come out.
What microphones do you tend to use?
I’ve got a Shure SM57 Beta, Shure SM7B, and a Rode NT1A. All the vocals get recorded through this very cheap Native Instruments guitar rig soundcard. I like it because it’s got two input and outputs and it just sits on your desk and it’s easy—but that got broken half way through the record. Then Allen and Heath gave me a massive mixing desk, a MixWizard. I can use mic preamps from there, but that really freaked me out because the preamps are super powerful and it completely changes how the microphone sounds and my voice sounded totally different. So I had to carry on with this busted Native Instruments guitar rig soundcard.
How did your voice sound different?
It made it really warm but my whole vocal signature is about glassy and breathy. I started thinking a lot about what is my voice and what is the mic. I learned that my vocals come from bad singing technique and sh*tty mics and no preamp. That’s cool because you can make anything with anything. You just need to have a vision of your taste. There’s so many crazy hip hop records that are full of distortion because the guys would crank everything up but that’s what makes it great. There are so many wrong things that have made insanely amazing records.
How do you decide which microphone to use?
It’s more about usability. With the SM57, it’s a live mic, so it’s in hand and it can be abused. You can dance and throw it around a bit and you don’t have to consider exactly where you place your mouth. Some records, I just need to perform them and I imagine there’s people there and coming outside of myself, then I need a robust mic and doesn’t pick up crazy noises from my hands and things like that. For more intimate vocals the SM7’s great. It’s used a lot in radio. You can really lick that thing and it’s still going to be crisp and clear and lovely.
The Rode I have a love/hate relationship with. When you don’t use it with a pre-amp it’s so sensitive to the sibilants and breathes. With this record I used it more for layering the voice and backing harmonies and to back up the chorus. I didn’t really use it for anything where there were a lot of syllables and words because it goes mental with consonant sounds. I use that mainly for scape-y effects, for subtle things, for soft vocals. It makes soft vocals sound so alive and full of detail and succulent. You can hear everything from your mouth. It’s real sexy sounding. But you don’t want a whole record like that.
You sound fantastic on “Sing To Me,” which also has a stand-out bassline. How did you create that?
That’s two basslines. I layered it. One’s from Spectrasonics Trilogy bass. I can’t even install that onto my computer because it’s five DVDs. It’s an upright bass and it’s layered with this really cheap Logic FM synth you can’t type any numbers into. You have to use the tiny dials with your mouse.
How are you translating your music in your live sets?
I’ve got Ableton, an Akai controller, and my Access Virus synth, which I love so much. It cuts through everything. I’m starting to learn more about how it’s built and what makes it sound that way. It’s all based on triangle waves. I’ve got my loops, backing tracks, single sounds, and basslines. I rearrange everything for live to make it a bit more windy.
I’ve got my sound guy as well. He has my Eventide Time Factor delay pedals, to he dubs out my voice. He’s just as busy as I am because he’s dealing with the PA and I’m dealing with the actual records and the EQ and how things are sounding as well as mixing everything together. We’re both really in love with dub and reggae culture, which inspires so much of what I do, so I like that we’ve got this live PA vibe.
Is this what you envisioned you’d be doing when you were doing your music technology degree?
I thought I’d get given some money, I’d have some time, and I could just make some records. But instead of doing it on my four-track with my piano, yogurt pots, and spoons as my snare drum, maybe there would be machines and studios and I could really produce some records, then hook up with a record deal through being able to use the studios at university. That was my strategy.
Instead, music tech school was horrible. My whole world fell apart. I didn’t make any music for two-and-a-half years because I was so confused. I didn’t know what I was doing. It was really scary. I didn’t make any good friends. I was with hundreds of boys that had amazing laptops and who all came from a science background. They already knew everything from the first year of the course.
When there wasn’t this wall of terror in front of me, then I really thrived from it. I was in the studio all the time and I felt like nothing could stop me. Whatever sound I imagined, within a matter of hours, I could work out how to do it. I had learned to use so many different kinds of software because I’d learned the concepts of programming and how to use programming digitally to create sound gestures and shapes. We learned about everything in such a crazy, abstract way it blew my mind. Just using the word gesture and sound shape instead of kick drum and snare drum, it opens your mind to so many other possibilities.
Was it worth it?
When I performed at SXSW, there was a 17-year-old girl who had gotten her aunt to travel four hours by car to get to my show. Her sister, who is a massive fan of mine, is at Berklee College of Music, wants to do what I do. When I performed in Hollywood the other night, there was a girl in every band performing. We were backstage together and they were asking, “How did you do all that stuff with technology? We’re trying to use GarageBand. We hate all the presets. How did you make all those crazy sounds?” Every time I’m out on the frontline, I’m getting that kind of response.
I want to make it clear to women that being a producer and a sound designer is not the done thing. You have to take a lot of slack for it and you have to fight for your place in it.