Kele Okereke has been listening very intently to the voices in his head.
Some are high-pitched, some are raspy, some are masked, some are nearly naked … oh, and they are all his. With Trick, his second solo album and first to be released on his own Lilac Records, the DJ, producer, and vocalist/rhythm guitarist for angular indie rock quartet Bloc Party has heightened the intimacy between his personal instrument and his songwriting process.
Counterbalancing his approach in Bloc Party, where he says he’s known for “a big voice where everything is so huge, from the emotional content to the delivery,” Kele has used Trick’s more sensual vocal pop and his own lustier registers to bridge the 4 a.m. world of nightclubs and fleeting connections with listeners looking for more than a fling.
Deep house, 2-step garage, dubstep, future R&B, and especially minimal tech-house are just some of the dance music forms presented, and atop them rides Kele’s softer, yet highly impactful vocals. This use of “head voice” is just one of the ways Kele and his collaborators, producer Alex “XXXchange” Epton and producer/mix engineer Tom Belton, assembled an album pairing express and affected techniques.
“The name of the album isn’t meant to imply that I’m pulling a stunt on the audience or focused solely on how I can edit sounds,” explains Kele. “The name Trick came from a term I learned whilst I was living in New York for a year, when lots of my friends when they had a one-night stand would use it to refer to that person, and I liked the term … the suggestion that two people were complicit in line for one another. And I felt it made sense in the context of the album as I noticed toward the end of making it that all the songs were conversations between lovers, where one lover is imploring another.
“There was plenty of work put into production, but whereas with my first record [2010’s The Boxer] I was more super-excited about being in a studio with Logic for the first time, using a lot of post-production to get a very euphoric feeling, for this album I focused on the songwriting first,” Kele continues. “I was very much concerned with the idea of song construction and didn’t want to get bogged down into the idea of finessing the sound before its time.”
Working with a Wurlitzer electric piano, Kele strived to develop melodies first, to construct each song’s essence before indulging the urge to fill in all the sounds around it. Laying down rough demos of voice ideas, scratch drums, and keys in his study, using his lack of formal piano training to allow him to work out tonal relationships without a format bias, Kele supplied the rudiments to Epton in order to have a fresh perspective and a sounding board for arrangement ideas.
“Something to bear in mind is that, having grown up in Britain and been exposed to lots of sonic textures from 2-step garage through to drum ‘n’ bass through to dubstep through to techno, it doesn’t feel odd to me to use a smooth rhythm and put a harsh synth sound on top of it,” he says. “Mixing disparate sounds and genres together is what we did in Bloc Party, and with [2008’s] Intimacy, which we made with Jacknife Lee and Paul Epworth, I got my first taste of how it feels to sit by a computer creating and editing audio. That album started my sense of curiosity about the process of editing tones and techniques together as opposed to performing them in one take. So I came at this record from the angle that I’m a songwriter, so I need to use any tool I feel fit when constructing something. I’m not so precious about referring to other forms of music.
“Part of the joy of working with someone like Alex was that he had a completely different set of reference points than me, musically,” he continues. “It challenged me as a songwriter … he took the songs I was writing and pushed them slightly somewhere else. I feel glad about that occurrence, because it didn’t just sound to me like pastiche. It sounded like a sense of collaboration, which is why I wanted to work with him again.”
Vision and shape established, often leaning in the direction of Kele’s DJ sets, Epton would look to translate the prescribed direction in the box. “At this point I’d add a ton of ideas, like way more than we’re ever going to use,” says Epton, who previously collaborated with Kele on The Boxer. “I just gave him a bunch of stuff to choose from, and then we keep the stuff he thinks works for the sound he’s going for. I’m mostly into [Native Instruments’] Reaktor, and u-he Zebra [wireless modular synth]. With those and a couple analog synths I can quickly get almost any sound I’m looking for. After the rough mixes were done and vocal production completed, everything was bounced out and sent to mixing where, in this case, the arrangements were stripped back and refined further.”
From this point in production, vocals were the only aspect that involved outboard gear, and the process began with a Neumann U47 tube condenser while tracking at two studios: The Bridge and The Yard. “This is a great mic for male vocals, period,” says Belton, who previously worked with Kele to produce the house-centric “Heartbreaker” and “Candy Flip” EPs on U.K. dance label Crosstown Rebels. “It’s great at dealing with dynamic range and it has that silky, warm quality that only this mic can give.”
For preamps, Belton turned to the Tube Tech MEC1A and the Amek System 9098. “The Tube Tech was naturally a little more noisy than the Amek, but at the end of the day, it was the only place we were getting real-world noise on the album,” he explains. “For the quieter vocal performances, I had to closely watch the gain structure in the signal path and change it between some verses and choruses, but other than that, it was straightforward tracking.
“We used an 1176 [peak limiter] at both studios for compression, and I’m not looking for more that 3 to 4 dB of reduction when working with singers. I never use EQ when recording vocals; I tend to think that if you do, something’s not right in the path. So much difference in tone and texture can be achieved with mic placement and mic choice.”
Similarly, when Kele headed to sessions in New York with Epton, the mic of choice was a Soundelux E47 tube condenser, which Epton picked to match the Neumann. Both producers took a similar approach toward prepping the vocals to fit the tracks. “Kele has a powerful, gravelly rock singer’s voice with a very strong midrange presence, which works naturally in dense arrangements,” observes Epton. “But for this record, since it’s more stripped back, I ended up taking a ton of midrange from his vocals in order to fit into the more skeletal arrangements.”
Compared to previous hands-in-the-air material, Trick has a more raw context and the team took a different approach in post production. “We were producing a larger body of work—more songs, less beats,” Belton explains. “With Trick, it was definitely more a case of making sure the message in the song was conveyed first and foremost, as opposed to the primary function of the music being something that would make people want to dance. I used exactly the same gear, software, but this time I was developing Alex’s work. So I was reaching for sounds that complemented his parts, but did it on a case-by-case basis for each part.”
Inheriting Epton’s multitracks, Kele and Belton pulled up a range of virtual instruments, including Native Instruments’ Kontakt sampler, Massive virtual-analog synthesizer, and Razor additive synthesizer, as well as Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere “power synth,” the Korg Legacy Collection’s M1 digital synth/workstation emulation and Lennar Digital’s Sylenth1 virtual analog synthesizer.
Razor and Omnisphere were particularly handy for warmer sounds, while “throughout the album you hear a lot of mallet sounds, and a quite a few of those are derived from Impact Soundworks’ Resonance: Emotional Mallets library for Kontakt,” says Belton. “When it comes to creating harsher sounds, I like to resample synths and put them in to Kontakt and build my own patches. You can really make things sound weird very quickly by messing around with the playback engine types and the effects built in there.”
EQ and multiband compression were as integral as sample selection when it came to guiding sound design. Using the Waves parametric Renaissance Equalizer for broad strokes and Waves Q10 10-band paragraphic EQ for subtractive notches, Belton helped Kele and Epton’s sessions “sit in a mix in a way that sounds like it’s going somewhere” in order to inspire new musical ideas. While for buses or instrument groups he preferred iZotope Alloy 2 for a “neutral, uncolored sound,” in contrast, the dynamic reaction of multiband compression— heavy on individual instruments but subtle on sub mixes—brought out stimulating noise and nuance. For example, Belton would “use upward multiband compression [in something like the Waves C6] to make sounds brighter, so when the signal is below the threshold, gain gets added when you set a negative ratio.”
A balance of spare and expressive, highly delineated tones has been increasingly central to Kele’s musical psyche. “When Bloc Party’s second single, ‘Banquet,’ came out, it was played a lot in clubs and I remember a DJ, Erol Alkan at a club in London called Trash we went to a lot, telling me that Paul [Epworth] had done a great thing with separation on that track and it didn’t lose any of its energy in any frequency when played on a large system. So that sensibility has always been with me, and with Trick I was most conscious of the fact I wanted the music to reflect these things I’d learned being first around DJs and then being a DJ, seeing how something like the sidechain reverb in ‘Doubt’ [see sidebar] could sound both so far in the distance but have an undeniable, indispensible rhythmic pulse.”
Kele’s confidence in his aesthetic has culminated in a holistic listening experience. “I like how my voice sounds with no stress, no push,” says Kele. “I’m kind of getting off on the idea of it being super, super intimate, so you can hear me breathing, you can hear the sound of my tongue and my lips. In Bloc Party I was pushing myself as far as I could in one direction, and I don’t feel I have to do that anymore. I have certain doors in my singing that I want to keep exploring, and more ways I’m excited to explore the marriage between organic songwriting and synthetic sounds.”
Tony Ware is a writer, editor, and former DJ based in the Washington, D.C., metro area. He also hears voices in his head, and they all demand more coffee.
Track Walkthrough: “DOUBT”
“Doubt,” the first single on Trick, is a song that comprises a series of resonant overlaps, a brooding mass of grimy drums, pulsating synths, and galvanized static. According to Belton, what you first hear is a collection of drums and pads based on noise for suspense and build, backed by sidechained crackle with a single-filter EQ and several drive simulators and compressors.
“I’ve got Massive as the sound source with all the oscillators turned off except the noise oscillator, which is set to ‘Paper’ with the color at max,” explains Belton. “Then it hits [Camel Audio’s] CamelPhat with the highpass filter in the bandpass filter module filtering out everything below 3 kHz. I’ve got its compressor module set to the max amount with release time set to the shortest. This can really crunch and distort things. In the distortion module, I have ‘Mech’ and ‘Tube’ at max, which adds color and drive, but because it’s only noise, we don’t get any nasty harmonics being added from the distortion—be careful to keep the plug-in’s output volume right down to retain a good gain structure. Then it goes through [iZotope audio mastering software] Ozone 5’s stereo-imaging module and I’m widening everything above 2 kHz by about 50 percent, which adds width (using Stereoizer) and color. Then we hit Logic’s compressor for the sidechain effect, which is keyed off of my dummy sidechain signal with a VCA circuit type and a release of 180 ms.”
The pulsating synth/pad drone comes from a custom patch in Omnisphere featuring a lowpass filter sweep dialed in using an automated instance of Sonalksis Creative Filter. “It was quicker to do it this way, because I already had an LFO creating the rhythmic filter pattern that goes round twice every bar using the lowpass filter in the synth, so I didn’t have to interfere with this modulation which I liked,” reveals Belton.
As for the bassline in the verse with the vocal, it came as a stem from Kele’s sessions with Epton, and was then compressed through Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig 5 with its tube compressor saturation turned up “to give it a little bit of subtle high-frequency fuzz,” says Belton.
“I like processing the top end of 808 kicks or subby basslines to give then a bit of sparkle and cut when the track is sparse as it is here. Then we’ve got a Waves Q10 in the signal path with a 3dB bump at 62 Hz to extend the lows, and a subtractive notch a bit high up at 102 Hz to clean out a bit of mud. After that, although I don’t usually do much automated bass reinforcement on individual instruments, this was an exception. The reason is that the vocal, the kick, and the bass are the lead instruments here, and I wanted to get a clear space for each one of them in the mix, allowing each one to cut through and sound strong. Lastly, in the signal path, I added an instance of Alloy 2 and switched one of the dynamics modules in to multiband mode. Then in the low band, cutting off above 100 Hz, I sidechained this band to my dummy kick sidechain signal. It’s a very subtle effect, but I’m actually achieving 18 dB of gain reduction here. It allows the kick and bass to breathe together in the very low frequencies.”
Belton is also quick to praise the control possible when inserting a reverb on a send rather than an individual channel. “I find that EQing the reverb return before the reverb plug-in can give you more interesting colors and can sometimes sound more natural. Another thing to try with long reverbs is to sidechain the reverb return to the source that’s sending to it. Works great on vocals and means that the tail pops out in between words, which can be a subtle or extreme effect.”