JAMIE LIDELL is an Englishman living in Nashville. He makes cybersoul music indebted to his coming of age in the late- ’80s/early-’90s Mentasm-era British rave scene and to his longtime love of Aphex Twin, Derrick May, Human League, Yazoo, Northern Soul, Roger Troutman, New Jack Swing, Stax, and Motown. He’s a generous talker and a gregarious performer, an enthusiastic “soul scientist” and cashmere showman. At the foundation of his work is an appreciation for raw, improvised edits and honeyed grooves, and speaking to him you can practically see his thought process as a persistently running conduit of quickly spliced loops.
Microphones, preamps, DAWs, and A/D converters, cold consoles and oversaturated polysynths, vintage outboard gear, and custom-designed software patches . . . these are just some of the character-drenched factors that play a part in Lidell’s recording process, and we touched on these and more one afternoon in December 2012, sitting in a snug organic café on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
“One big part of making the record was Jamie’s Italian espresso machine,” admits producer/engineer Justin Stanley while discussing the sessions for Lidell’s self-titled fifth album. It seems that whether dedicating his energies to sonic programming or home brewing, Lidell is the kind of fellow who goes to whatever lengths it takes to draw the most personality out of any source, and the more hands-on he can be, the better.
Lidell’s history releasing machine funk stretches back to the mid-’90s and to his partnership with Christian Vogel in Super Collider, a project that emerged from Brighton, England, as the logical progression of lacing some Autechre with some Prince, and some Plastikman with some P-Funk. While in the midst of that project’s sophomore effort, Lidell moved to Berlin, Germany, and found himself totally skint, and, he says, in a position where being a sociable scrounger could only get him so far when the prevalent scene was “really excellent box players.”
“These guys were purely techno and they would rock that sh*t,” Lidell continues. “But I was never into drum machines, was never purely analog. I never had that Roland 303/606/909 formative purity phase. I came from computers—Atari ST, Cubase, linear timelines—and I had been making these ambitious Max/MSP patches to toy with my voice, because that was how I made my music.
“So I needed a way to electronically perform with my voice, and I had collaborated with guitarists with loops, so I started to think about how to combine this. So, to make money, I first combined a Boss SB-202, a Line 6 DL4 Delay, maybe another delay. I was holding it down with some dodgy guitar pedals and then bringing in a computer doing some playback. Then I worked in my Max looper patch and a portable analog console so that each track had its own output, because I’ve always liked that tactile feel, and we could do post stuff at the front of the house. It wasn’t fancy stuff, I couldn’t even do overdubbing; I’d have a couple mics, and I’d have different delays and stuff like the Mu-Tron Octave Divider running with a volume pedal on the aux to control my send level to the delays, etc. And I’d just record those signals and then play them back.
“The looper was a simple thing,” Lidell explains, “just five tracks with the record mode and mutes easily accessible on the black keys with your fingers. Once I got that down, I started to lock a 606 to the computer’s clock, and I’d also hire a Minimoog Model-D, using a bass amp to monitor my own mix to make sure I was getting the low body sound I needed to tune everything with the vocals. That was the show I was running when I put out my first album on Warp [2005’s Multiply], and it was far less austere, way more rough around the edges than a lot of what was around me.”
Honing this patch as he expressively flailed his rangy body about international stages, Lidell put together Multiply with his friend and fellow Berlin transplant Mocky. They worked with various studio sketches that would be laid out and manipulated through a five-loop mentality: two rhythmic/timekeeper channels, three harmonic. Presenting this approach during a serendipitously timed period of funk-soul revival, Multiply won Lidell’s name a wider presence than any of his previous work. Jim (2008), an even more acoustically composed collaboration with several Canadian expats, played out like a logical, well-mannered follow-up to Multiply, further reinforcing Lidell’s crooner side. It was with 2010’s Compass, however, that Lidell more blatantly displayed his DSP-rumpled chops, effortlessly sloughing off the typecasting of “neo-soul singer” to be rebranded appropriately as a retro-futuristic producer.
Now, on Jamie Lidell, the artist has even further reconciled all the disparate elements and diverse circuitry of his tonal makeup, showing how a slowly, lovingly baked career can exhibit much more richly textured flavors than a quickly microwaved effort. Compass was a more emotionally uneasy album made following a move from Berlin to New York City. Lidell used a studio/space-hopping approach to find varying acoustic treatments for Compass, beyond the confines of his 800-square-foot apartment. The result of these sessions—spread from the Niagara Escarpment to the Hollywood Hills—is that album’s aggressively direct, darkly eroded midrange. Jamie Lidell, meanwhile, reflects his relocation to a 3,000-plus-square-foot Nashville home, a more playful space where its owner enjoyed freely experimenting with a newfound buoyancy, digitally editing sketches and toying with rhythmic real estate.
“I’m definitely a fish out of water in Nashville,” admits Lidell. “But in New York all my equipment was slowly gathering dust. Now there’s this great house with loads of space. And instead of just filling it up with the gear I already had, I went out and bought more! On my last tour I picked up an [Oberheim] OB-Xa, a [Sequential Circuits] Prophet-5, a Rhodes Chroma, a few more. We started filling out the tour bus with these sonic weapons. I got the [Oberheim] DMX drum machine, the E-mu SP-1200, all these original boxes so I could get a taste of that sound. And in Nashville I found an SSL 4000E/G console, this 56-channel, 12-foot long monster. We had to cut holes in the floor to run the power supplies down to the garage, where we had two huge six-foot racks whirring away in the basement, pulling all the power on the grid to keep this thing on. I’ve since sold it, but we recorded Jamie Lidell and a good two more albums’ worth of material on it.
“What I love about the SSL is that it’s the sound of the era I was going for, that [Janet Jackson] Rhythm Nation vocal sound,” says Lidell. “By itself, it’s brittle, but in a good way, and it’s great for inserting equipment all over the channels; it’s got a really nice, robust path. You just keep it below 0dB and let it breathe; it’s got plenty of delicious headroom. We’d break out all the parts separately and really have the board rocking, because we used a lot of analog effects. We had a Publison Infernal Machine [digital pitch shifter], which was one of the first time-stretch units, and we had a lot of old delays, like the Roland RE-201 [Space Echo]. We’d stretch out everything, all the parts from my looper and all the session tracks from Pro Tools, then we’d garble it all up— analog and digital, all a mess together.”
The song “You Naked” is an example of such unity. It begins with a tone from Native Instruments’ Razor additive synth, and it’s just a deep, heavy belly preset. “That’s what they did with ‘Beat It,’ you know, just started it off with a Synclavier tone,” reflects Lidell. “Sometimes you hear a sound that’s too incredible to deny.” Quickly, however, creeps in the wonky theme of the OB-Xa, a testy analog beast emitting a tonality that would take far too long to re-create digitally; it’s often Lidell’s synth of choice.
“I’ll often run it through an amazingly satisfying chain of the Space Echo, into the SSL, then using the SSL to apply the nonlinear reverbs of the Bricasti [Design Model 7],” he says. “They added a preset not long ago that’s a real Prince thing, like the sound off the AMS RMX-16. That’s the ‘Kiss’ reverb, on the bass drum . . . that sound is through the reverse tube program. So I used a lot of that, and the Dimension D effect on the [Eventide] H8000. But often I kept going back to the Publison. It’s my sensibility; it only has seven modes, but it’s this incredible sound for pitch and widening. I got really into exploring old methodologies, and I’d have that old-school sensibility where I’ll often print all the effects on a take, because when you get that sound you should just commit and balance it later; why go back and second-guess yourself?”
Further exemplifying this marriage of analog to digital, Lidell took various approaches to percussion that included the sounds of an isolated live kit and drum machines. Again citing the Prince influence, Lidell commissioned Linn Electronics EPROMs be made for the DMX, and played LM-1 samples through that circuitry. Finding that to be a little cold, he ran the drums through the Publison, pitched them up, and then refined the solution by having a real drummer add parts on top.
The live drums, which started with a naturally captured dead ’70s quality to them, were recorded “. . . with no more than three or four mics in the cement basement of the house, and we used the staircase and adjoining room as a nature echo chamber,” reveals Stanley. “I’d use the natural diffusion of the different rooms of the house, switching the mic to an omni pattern to pick up more space, while other vocals, keyboards, guitars, and tighter-sounding drums were recorded in the control room.”
There were also occasions that could almost qualify as “jamming,” with two keyboards being played to introduce surprising harmonic sensibilities, or bass and drums rolling on a loop simultaneously. “We tried to record two or more of us at the same time so we could bounce off each other; it always makes for a better performance,” says Stanley. “Bleed was never a real concern; the performance being captured—that was the main goal.”
In contrast, on the song “What A Shame” Lidell brought in legendary soul session drummer James Gadson, then sequenced his hits through an MPC60; he used those live tracking samples to create a new Linn-type hybrid, bridging randomness and repetition.
Tying together all these stacked bundles of polysynths, percussion, and vocal punctuation is a wealth of processing, much of it focused on the fringes and transients. “Distortion is my favorite color; there are so many colors of it,” says Lidell, who cites Thermionic Culture’s The Culture Vulture, the SoundToys Decapitator analog saturation plug-in, and Universal Audio’s UAD Studer A800 Multichannel Tape Recorder plug- in as favorites. “You can make so many wonderfully bizarre artifacts with the bias too low and choking,” says Lidell.
“To make certain tracks pop, we would add varying degrees of harmonic distortion [to individual synth tracks, drums, and sometimes vocals] . . . or give them extreme narrow bandwidths,” echoes Stanley. “Also, we’d overload the inputs on the Neve 1073 mic pre’s to get that amazing distortion that only they can get. And certain vocals were run through a portable Nagra mono quarter- inch tape machine.”
Lidell’s appreciation for emotionally charged parts resulted in a forceful, air-pushing quality. “My wife is a great photographer, and sometimes she underexposes a photo and that ends up being my favorite, because she has to save it in the dark room by doing extreme things,” explains Lidell. “Similarly, there’s a mystery and charm to parts that are ‘poorly’ recorded, and then treated. For ‘What a Shame,’ I recorded some Chroma parts too quietly for my demo, but they had that swing I wanted and when I bumped them up on post, it raised the noise floor and added an interesting white noise character I prefer, and that contrasts well in a stack. It can be the salvation of a sound, when you add that ‘improperly lit’ part; it stimulates the imagination.
“With vocals, on the other hand, a lot of times I’ll just vibe, lay down a really bright shape with the AKG/Telefunken D19 [mic], then Justin would come in and we’d re- record proper parts again at the console with a Brauner VMX under a cloud with some gobos. I like layering sounds with all their natural ambience, but it can build up and make it hard to maintain airiness. First and foremost you solve these challenges in the arrangements, but when you get lost in the programming you need a great mix engineer like Justin to know exactly how to reshape dynamics and displace just the right thing.”
An integral element to seating all the sounds in their three-dimensional space was the liberal application of extreme reverbs to some parts, which would in turn place other dry components in stark contrast. Next was carving: “I’d try to lose the low end below 150kHz if the sound wasn’t acting as the main bass instrument,” says Stanley. “And the same went for sounds that didn’t have a lot of high frequency . . . I’d roll the tops off a bit just to free up as much space as possible.”
Or, to put it another way, as Lidell does, “You need some blur on the lenses. It’s like they say about sales of porn in HD: You don’t want to see too much, because it becomes a disaster of anatomical clarity, a biology video.”
A few of the rare constants on Jamie Lidell included the use of the Retro Instruments Sta-Level as the tracking compressor of choice, to add tube magic, and a combination of GML Parametric Equalizers and innerTube Audio Atomic Squeeze Box full-band dynamics processors on the SSL’s main stereo bus, which would be sent to Burl Audio converters then back into Pro Tools for extreme automated panning, etc. The final mix, however, was done using an all-hands-on-deck approach on the console. “It helps to leave spontaneity and mistakes in the mix, and that’s what makes it a lot more alive,” says Stanley.
Tony Ware is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and editor who is willing to walk dozens of blocks, even travel several states to find the perfect blend of gear-geek talk and single-estate roasters.