Jamie Lidell: Recording 'Building a Beginning'

Soul singer uses new technology, new approach, new label in Nashville on Building a Beginning
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Jamie Lidell cemented a style of hiccuping, honeyed cybersoul in 2005 with his sophomore album Multiply. Using a combination of custom DSP patches and outboard gear he’d been amassing since the late ’90s, the Brighton, England, expatriate brought together elements of tech-house, IDM, neo-soul, and electro while adrift in Berlin, Germany. Now, 10 years and multiple cities later, Lidell continues to refine his funk-soul sensibilities, often playing it by ear.

“Everyone in interviews is intent on me revealing a strong strategy, a game plan for creating a record,” says Lidell, speaking by phone from Amsterdam. “But I tend to feel my way through and when I feel there is a collection emerging I contemplate an album.”

Lidell’s latest assembly of songs is Building a Beginning, released on his own Jajulin Records. Coming nearly four years after 2013’s Jamie Lidell, this sixth LP is the first album that Lidell has not released on Warp Records, which was his label for 15 years. “It’s no disrespect to Warp; it’s not that I didn’t get along with people there,” he says. “It’s just me feeling that to be excited about the process again I needed that new blood, you know.”

For a period, Lidell’s attention had been focused more on collaborations and co-writing, garnering him a Grammy nomination for his production/songwriting on Lianne La Havas’s “Green & Gold” and a Juno nomination for his work on A-Trak’s “We All Fall Down.” However, Lidell also wrote dozens of songs for his own projects during this prolific period, 14 of which comprise Building a Beginning.

Inspired by personal relationships building up to the birth of his first child, Julian, Building a Beginning is an organically evolved album that eventually gelled through judicious post-production creativity. Philosophically, Building a Beginning celebrates the powerful, transformative instrument that is the human voice and the joyful exuberance derived from bringing together great players. Lyrics, cowritten by Lidell’s wife, Lindsey Rome, bring achingly honest emotions to the earthy arrangements.

Whereas Jamie Lidell was a more machineshaded robofunk album—the work of one man and enough gear to fill a recently acquired 3,000-square foot house in Nashville, Tenn., where Lidell and family still live—Building a Beginning is saturated with the heritage of soul music; the sounds are informed in some ways by Stevie Wonder and David Bowie’s output of the early to mid ’70s, and by the blown out, yet dynamically rich and intact aesthetic of Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color.

Lidell began building the new album with clarity of purpose. “I’ve debated over the years whether you really need to be able to play a great song on a guitar, feel the essence coming through regardless of arrangement, and I flip-flopped on that argument,” he says. “But for this one I felt the answer is, ‘Yes,’ and that makes it more of a ‘Nashville record’ perhaps. I think all of these songs sound pretty great on keyboard or guitar played pretty simply.

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“For a song like ‘Julian,’ I sketched that entire track out vocally, singing the drums and the bass and all the parts as placeholders, and it was an easy one to rework in the studio, as I wasn’t committed to any parts. Other tracks, like ‘Building a Beginning,’ I started with a purely MIDI backing track, using sample drums that sounded really good, a guide acoustic guitar, and a lead vocal I tracked; I liked the super simple feel.”

Reaching into his growing mic cabinet, Lidell most often set up a 1961 Neumann U47 for his sketches, as well as final vocals, running it through a vintage Universal Audio 2100 channel strip to capture treble extension and resonance in the upper mids, and give the take a “gluey” consistency.

At one point Lidell had installed a 56-channel SSL 4000 E/G console in his house, but the realization that he was using it less for dynamics and automation and more as a summing box—with a hefty electricity bill and maintenance costs in the bargain—prompted him to sell it. He says the sale of the board might have cost his productions a bit of positive-frequency “funk,” but there are workflow benefits to his current setup: His control room is now centered around a Crane Song Avocet for monitoring and summing, along with a Speck LiLo mixer and Rupert Neve Satellite [5059] summing mixer. Tracking often runs through a variety of outboard EQ and EFX, into Lynx Aurora converters and UAD Apollo interface as the front end for a MacBook Pro running Pro Tools 12 HD.

“When living in New York I longed to have the space to make noise, so living in Nashville has given my wife and son and myself a sanctuary to create art,” says Lidell. “I had room to experiment with a console, to set up a really nice dry room downstairs. What I’ve learned is a lot of the Nashville I have come to appreciate lives behind closed doors in relative secrecy. There is a house studio vibe here for the oddballs like myself, and I’ve ultimately contributed another, though a more electronic one.”

Compared to the more retrofuturistic Jamie Lidell, Building a Beginning has fewer ’80s-vintage rhythm machines and synths. There is a little Oberheim OB-Xa, and a splash of Yamaha DX, used for sound effects, but a vast majority of the monophonic synthesized tones originate from the SoundMangler, a custom machine built by Sam Suwier in Belgium.

“It’s like the circuitry of the [Korg] MS-20 and MS-50, miniaturized into a personalized modular. I set up a convoluted system where I hooked it up to the Oberheim SEM and the SoundMangler’s sine oscillator. So, for ‘I Live to Make You Smile’ and ‘Building a Beginning’ I wanted a super flutey sound, so I devised this crazy way of playing where the Sound-Mangler would go into the SEM’s audio input and I’d use the MIDI to CV converter on the SEM, so I could play my keyboard that goes into the SEM to trigger the SoundMangler, making the audio come out the SoundMangler through the SEM. So, I could play in real time both the filters on the SEM and original synth to create a crazy array of tones.”

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One tonal inspiration for these acoustic emulations was definitely Stevie Wonder’s TONTO (“The Original New Timbral Orchestra”) synthesizer from his classic album run that includes Talking Book, Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life. In addition, Lidell played some Clavinet on the album, processing it through a Roland RE-201 Space Echo analog delay to create the dreamier tones on “Julian.” And the use of vintage Mu-Tron effects pedals was yet another nod to the way Stevie Wonder coaxed the warmest, most human qualities from electronically sourced sounds.

“It constantly amazes me how potent something like a Space Echo can be when you exploit it, multitrack it,” says Lidell. “You can’t underestimate these boxes; they can vastly alter something. There is something to be said for boxes that have stood the test of time and are a little bit crappy, cranky, not accurate in the best ways.”

Beyond employing some classically analog paths to harmonic richness in the studio, another dimension of Building a Beginning that makes it more of a ‘Nashville record’ is the presence of numerous session players, who infuse the tracks with energy and sonic cohesiveness.

Some parts on the album were tracked in Lidell’s studio, using his U47s, as well as Neumann KM56 multipattern condensers and RCA 44 ribbons, among other microphones, while musical and acoustical character came from outside his home facility. Featured musicians include bassist Pino Palladino (D’Angelo, Elton John, Peter Gabriel); multi-instrumentalist and Wilco member Pat Sansone; as well as backing vocalists Kudisan Kai, Traci Brown Bailey, and Tiffany Smith (Chaka Khan).

For a song such as “Building a Beginning,” Lidell sent his demo to his longtime L.A.-based collaborator Mocky, who arranged to have additional parts including keyboard, Chamberlin, electric bass, Wurlitzer, and flute added before he sent it back for Lidell to chop up and “Melodyne.”

On “How Did I Live Before Your Love” and “Precious Years,” Lidell worked with producer Justin Stanley, who set up sessions in L.A. for back-up vocals and strings, as well as other practical aspects, though Lidell admits did things like varispeed entire sessions from 140 to 160 bpm, altering them wildly. Lidell then looked for ways to combat what he called the “Frankensteinian nature of the process.”

“A major part of the album was filled in at Sound Emporium when I tracked songs with DaRu Jones [drummer for Jack White] and this amazing engineer called Eddie Spear, who was an assistant for Vance Powell for a long time,” says Lidell. “We actually bypassed all of Sound Emporium’s gear and Eddie brought in a small Auditronics side car with Spectra Sonics 610 Complimiters. It was a very simple console with very basic audio path that gave a super open, full tone with great transient clarity. The sound is very punchy and direct. Great for drums.

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“I felt having an aspect to the rhythm section tracked in the same environment helped give cohesion. With parts of my sketches being quite bitty and sessions spanning almost four years of work, it was good to give it an almost fake live sound by throwing amazing drums on the tracks.”

In addition to the drums, a regime of re-amping helped Lidell and mix engineer Jake Aron to achieve a similarly wide RMS to Shawn Everett’s work on Alabama Shakes’ sophomore album. “That album has such a rich sound that evoked the distant past, but with modern twists,” says Aron. “It sounds classic but not old, and it’s so loud but so dynamic and clean that when noise comes out, it shines as an amazing artistic choice.

“Every once in awhile when we were mixing we would check ‘Building a Beginning’ against a Fab-Filter Pro-L limiter to make sure we could get the RMS where we wanted it so it would ‘compete’ with something like Sound & Color, then we’d pull it off.”

The thickening agent found to be most effective by the tag team of Lidell and Aron was unlocked through washing parts in a signal chain pumped from the controls down into Lidell’s concrete basement, through a Silvertone 1483 amplifier, and into a Josephson e22s cardioid condenser microphone.

“We’d send signals down through a Calrec PQ 1061 preamplifier and equalizer into the Silvertone and Josephson, then typically into a Quad Eight MM310 or a Chandler Limited TG channel strip,” says Lidell. “And we’d boost crazy, nasty frequencies, like 900 Hz into the Silvertone to create versions of the guitars and drums that were blown up. “We were committing in Pro Tools to all these endless treatments through the amp, and also printing to my Nagra [1/4-inch mono] tape machine rather than doing everything in the box. The tape we used on the Nagra was super-old ’60s Scotch that was crazy looking and black and it had a certain sound to it, and we hammered that reel again and again and again because it kept giving us this dimension.

“We’d sometimes put a mic, sometimes a Brauner VM1, down the hall leading to the dry room to get stereo ambiance and diffuse reverb,” Lidell contin-ues. “Got a lot of use out of the Retro Instruments Sta-Level [tube compressor], to get some creative blurs, and more than usual out of the UA 1176AE [limiting amplifier]. We used the [Publison] Infernal Machine—Cathedral B, a crazy old ’80s reverb algorithm—as well as the Bricasti Design Model 7 [stereo reverb], either softly or violently. We tried to do a craft process on the mix that involved a lot of analog components and room captures. Though we did use digital gear, of course.”

Reflecting on the re-amping chain, Aron agrees that the Nagra offered lush 70mm level bandwidth, and running things to tape before blending them back in let them “tweak bias and levels to get cool muffled things or really bright results you can scoop,” he says. He highlights the importance of having the Calrec inline so that if there was a honk they liked or didn’t they had inductor EQ to boost or trim.

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“I became quite an [iZotope] RX master,” adds Lidell when asked about compensating for undesired signal noise. “I love the creative aspects of being able to reduce old gear buzz, but also correct vocals naturally or push artifacts, when appropriate.”

Aron also emphasizes the importance of using the Radial Engineering EXTC 500 series interface for getting line-level signals where they needed to be to feed the studio tools. On the digital side, Aron reached for the GoodHertz Vulf Compressor for its vibe and parallel capabilities, and the FabFilter plug-ins for transparent boosts and EQ. He also liked to use UAD Harrison 32C/SE channel EQ, Vertigo VSM-3 harmonic saturator, and the Valhalla suite, especially UberMod multilay delay (when not doing modulation and coloration on analog inserts). During mixdown (which didn’t require much of the outboard summing equipment), Aron and Lidell would often sit together at an Avid Artist Mix and some Auratone Soundcubes and do rides.

“I like to start, if I’m in the box, by just doing volume blending, taking faders and mixing into an aux with something tapey like a Studer [A800 multichannel tape machine] plug-in or something offering mild compression or saturation, but that you could bypass without things being totally different. Just to get the feel right, play with some interesting by-products. In the case of this record, because it was tracked so well, that was literally all I needed along with a little bit of Thermionic Culture Vulture [valve distortion/enhancer] or SoundToys Decapitator [analog saturation plug-in] and Maag EQ4 for sub and top. So we’d do a stereo mix of what was already there and I just wanted to enhance what was making Jamie really excited.

“We started with the song—the arrangements and re-amping and everything we did to make the pieces push but stay tight—as the glue and only applied straight limits as they were needed. Often the sounds dictated themselves and the players were so idiosyncratic that we went with highlighting that.”

Aron says the mix sessions were spread out across late February and March, but open-ended and stress-free. “Jamie will be happy with a mix and still want to dial a few things in and out to get it exactly where he might want through weird instances of compression or EQ or three Decapitators into each other. He’ll just wonder what will happen if, say, he used the inverse image in RX to bring out this weird resonance in a vocal.

“He’s great, because if you want to try something that seems totally insane, that is what will get him most excited. Anytime I would say I need to ride a vocal for 20 minutes he’d tell me to shut up, but if I said I wanted to re-amp a ballad and throw in through two flangers and reverse it and bit-crush it, he’d say take your time. It was experimenting the whole time.”

“Who is to say that I won’t eventually come out with a strict Matthew Herbert-style manifesto of a record full of virtual strategies now that I have my own label,” says Lidell. “I am pretty free to put stuff out there, maybe not even albums, just real-time music—but I think that formulating songs until they feel they belong together will always be the way for me.”