Q&A: Hudson Mohawke

Inside 'Lantern'
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Hudson Mohawke—born Ross Birchard in Glasgow, Scotland, and referred to as HudMo by fans—just wrapped recording on Lantern, his sophomore full-length for Warp Records and first artist album since 2009. In the half-decade since that debut, HudMo has released two EPs; made festival audiences go mental as half of the trap bangers duo TNGHT (with Canadian producer/DJ Lunice); and been signed as a producer for Kanye West’s GOOD Music, landing credits on albums including West’s 2013 epic, Yeezus. He’s also collaboratted with Drake, John Legend, Young Thug, Pusha-T, and Antony Hegarty. With Lantern, HudMo has set out to present a refinement of his own core musician sensibilities and identity as more than a behind-the-scenes beat producer.

Set up as a dawn-till-dusk arch that bounces from melodic to kinetic and back, Lantern gives you access to HudMo’s colorful aesthetic, weaving patterns of metallic resonance full of neon, wobbly, soaring wails. Entry to his thought process, meanwhile, comes during an hour-long phone conversation from his current home base in London.

Topics range from establishing a workflow to the pros of happy accidents to sometimes putting faith in ears over meters, but no examination of HudMo’s often itchy style is complete without a glimpse at his preproduction accolades as a turntablist and the youngest U.K. DMC finalist at the age of 15.

“When I was still in grade school I got some really, really cheap turntables for Christmas one year … belt-driven,” recalls HudMo, now 29. “And it’s a really good way to learn, because when you have sh*tty equipment you have to put in the hours of work to get it to do what you want, while if you go in with an industry standard [direct-drive , hightorque, quartz-controlled] Technics [SL-1200s] you can do whatever from the get-go. I definitely think that learning different scratch techniques contributed to how I would first treat samples, as a sort of unconscious thing. It didn’t occur to me till much later that there was a link, but eventually I realized early on I was chopping things in these scratch patterns that were embedded in me.” (Indeed, listen to the track “Shadows” on Lantern and you can still hear transformer and crab scratches in its DNA.)

While learning how to command the crowd and demolish competitors with the wheels of steel’s wow and flutter, HudMo also started playing around with music, somewhat literally. In 1998 Jester Interactive released a UK-only PlayStation music creation program called simply “Music,” which was HudMo’s first introduction to workstation-style production.

“This was before I had any production equipment and before there were affordable all-in-one DAWs; we didn’t even have a family computer, let alone a dedicated music platform, so the fact you could get what was essentially a game that could make full songs was mind-blowing for me,” he says. “And in the follow-up to that game [1999’s ‘Music 2000’—‘MTV Music Generator’ in North America] there was a feature where you could take out the game disc and put in an audio CD and sample it for maybe 10 seconds, but that was my introduction to sampling. I think my first sample was just experimenting with chopping ‘Amen’ breaks [the drum solo from The Winstons’ 1969 single “Amen, Brother”], learning how to intricately chop drums.”

It wasn’t long before HudMo put down the gold-plated Vestax mixer, left the battle routines behind and picked up his first, and still primary, digital audio workstation, Fruity Loops (which he now augments with some Pro Tools sessions).

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“I picked up Fruity Loops [now known as FL Studio] because it didn’t seem as complicated as some other things, and I’ve stuck with it since; now I know the workflow so well that by the time some people are still setting their MIDI track, etc., in Logic I’ve already got something up and running,” he explains. “I’ve been using it so long, it’s very tactile to me. And I’ve always liked things that are hands-on. Around 2007 I made the backward decision to collect hardware at the same time a lot of people were selling. So I’ve got hardware synthesizers with the foundation always being FL.”

HudMo’s source and synthesis collection—which includes the Ensoniq VFX, Roland D-550, Moog Little Phatty, Rhodes “suitcase” piano, Novation MiniNova, Teenage Engineering OP-1, ROLI Seaboard, and Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 12—runs the gamut of FM grit, analog growl, and funky gleam. His gear isn’t always intuitively or infinitely tweakable, but he prefers the “width, the size of the sound compared to what I would get out of some VSTs or other keyboards … it’s just so much more up-front.” And the combination of hardware and Fruity Loops has led to some unforeseen, fortuitous consequences.

“No sort of disrespect to the designers of Fruity Loops … but it’s not designed to work with a large number of pieces of outboard gear, so you have to find ways to make it work for you,” he explains. “Like the belt-drive turntables, you quite often find your own path through things like transmitting wrong notes here and there, or when it’s lagging a bit. You’ll move a knob on a synth and it will change a random preset in FL for no reason. So these happy accidents showed me where I’d never think to change a parameter, but a bizarre MIDI signal I never set up has changed a parameter and had a knock-on effect … it’s a bit idiosyncratic. But I stick with it because with Fruity Loops it’s open and I’m off.”

HudMo’s embrace of idiosyncrasies was reinforced in 2007 when, as a participant in the Toronto edition of the yearly roving Red Bull Music Academy, he sat in on an impactful lecture. “Seeing [tech-house and electro funk-jazz producer] Theo Parrish working on an [Akai] MPC rather than working on software was something I thought was really interesting. I always associated an MPC as being strictly hip-hop. I had never seen it applied to dance music, and so seeing him work with samples and how he also bounced his final mix even in 2007 to MiniDisc … little things like that helped me realize everyone has their own ways of working and you should just go with what’s right for you.”

Going with what felt right during the first phase of his career led HudMo to be branded “maximalist,” meaning “lots of layers, lots going on constantly … a lot of what I used to do was having a panner on every track so everything was randomly all over the stereo image at all times. There wasn’t anywhere to fit things. When I would send tracks out at that point to vocalists and MCs they were in my mind all instrumentals, but the feedback I was getting were they were full tracks with no space for vocalists and they didn’t know what to do with them.

“I realized I could pursue my enjoyment of making music but I’d have to learn the art of leaving space, so for [Lantern] I’ve transitioned into wanting things simplified, more song-based, where less can give a greater effect.”

HudMo’s conscious decision to tone his production’s lean muscle came during the sessions for 2014’s Chimes EP. It showcased a balance of hyper-percussive and more pared-down material, and signaled HudMo’s commitment to achieving less congestion in his recordings.

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It was also with the Chimes EP that HudMo started working with Edward J. Nixon, the Grammy Award-winning mix engineer for the Atlanta, Georgia- based J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League production group (although Nixon hails from the Lake District in northwest England). The two struck up an initial conversation through Twitter, and quickly found they had common ground in a mutual love of sample-based hip-hop and early rave music — forms infused with rhythm, euphoria, and a quality of real performance.

“We both come from places with huge landscapes, and we love raw, hard-hitting, emotional music,” says Nixon. “I want music that has that feeling of seeing a performance live, where it’s huge, feels like it’s right in front of you. A lot of artists start with something not so polished, then while trying to make it fit a format or style, they polish the essence out of it. Uniqueness is something I value and Hudson’s music has his nonchalant ‘being me’ attitude. So if he’s got a synth or an entire song going in a certain direction it becomes about how far I can help take that in the same direction.

“The biggest thing for me is you can’t hit what you can’t see unless you get lucky, and I’m not interested in getting lucky. I’m interested in accuracy,” he continues. “The biggest thing that dictates that is the ability of your own hearing, acoustics, conversion, and monitoring. As long as that is extremely accurate you can paint a picture that is representative of what you intended. So we wanted to determine if he heard the true value of his gear.”

HudMo says this philosophy fed in nicely to his upgrade path. “I started to notice how a lot of VST emulations of hardware would muddy up the sound instead of making it bigger and more exciting sounding, so I wanted to rely more on hardware but I needed to invest in the signal chain to not blur the sounds,” he explains. “For inputs I bought the Thermionic Culture Fat Bustard II … it’s a valve summing mixer but rather than using it to sum signals after making something I run my hardware into it in the first place and process. So I can widen it, add some top shelf, overdrive it, and make it much larger sounding in general on the way in rather than trying to achieve that after recording a dry song.

“I also really like Crane Song convertors and I use the RME Fireface UFX with the Avocet II D/A monitor switcher for the digital out.”

At the end of chain is a cadre of monitors: Tannoy DMT 215 fed by a Bryston SST2 amp for mains with an 18-inch sub, Dynaudio BM15 active midfields, and ProAc Studio 100 nearfields with a Lindell AMPX. The ProAc Studio 100s in particular, which HudMo describes as having “the tone of [Yamaha] NS-10s but with extended low end,” immediately caught his attention when he first heard them while working with Kanye West on Yeezus at Rick Rubin’s complex.

Rubin lauds the Studio 100s, which he says were introduced to him by New Jack Swing pioneer Teddy Riley. Rubin considers monitors with intelligibility to be integral studio components. “The less hypey and more natural the sounds, the better, and getting used to them and hearing how the music transfers to other familiar systems like the car would be helpful,” he advises.

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Rubin’s influence on HudMo extended beyond gear and into process, as well. HudMo says Rubin’s focus and his willingness to turn off the screen and monitor with his ears as opposed to his meters was a valuable example. “Listening with eyes closed, in context, beginning to end, is very helpful,” says Rubin. “Sometimes we focus on small parts and they work differently as snippets out of context.”

Engineer Edward Nixon Nixon agrees: “I often say loud noise distorts vision. When things are loud, you can trick yourself into saying it’s good because it gets your attention. But when you force everything into a small space with no headroom you lose movement and impact. Just because your meter isn’t going into the red doesn’t mean you’re not losing some quick transient information that defines your dynamics. Bringing your mix down overall and learning to listen with your ears means the mastering engineer won’t receive something so pinned it becomes fatiguing at louder levels. Gain staging is a very boring thing to discuss, but headroom is everything in terms of filling both a virtual and physical space.”

A clear vision doesn’t necessarily mean a clean tone, however. HudMo hasn’t given up on his signature overdrive, he’s just more judicial in its application. Gettting the right amount of crunch can be as simple as pulling out an old E-mu SP-1200 and using it to process samples to apply a signature dirt. Sidechained white noise and compression as coloration, through the Fat Bustard, as well as a gauntlet of Universal Audio plug-ins, can be other means to add hiss as texture, rather than trying to minimize it as a by-product. One example is on the track “Ryderz,” which is a tribute to the continuum of hip-hop stretching from DJ Premier to Madlib. HudMo stresses, however, that his decisions prioritize musicality over technicality.

Another production facet HudMo approached differently while arranging his clusters of 808, helium- pitched samples, and portamento-lofted synths was that most complex of instruments: the vocal.

“The instrumentation on Hudson’s records is so attention grabbing that for someone to be on his records you have to be able to keep up with this incredible musical display he’d conducting,” says Nixon. “The record can easily outdo you, out-perform you.

“When we started working together I’d ask, where do you want [the vocal]? Behind, acting as the horizon of the image, as a godlike vocal; or do you want something more animal-like and at the front — smaller but moving around dynamically to grab your attention. Before you use the gear, you need the vision of how you want things to sit. Then it’s a combination of compression and time-based effects, reverb, and delay. I use Universal Audio pretty much exclusively, and my favorite compressor in the world as a plug-in is the 1176 anniversary [model], because it allows me to have a 2:1 ratio and it allows me to have finite control over both attack and release. To be able to augment the beginning of a transient and the release you can push something back in the image and lift it. Once I got that putting it in a space takes it to the next level, and one of the things we used was the Lexicon 224 reverb from Universal Audio.”

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Instead of shoehorning in vocal takes recorded remotely, HudMo worked to get contributors (including Irfane, Ruckazoid, Antony Hegarty, Miguel, and Jhene Aiko) to track in his studio, using a Brauner VMX microphone running through a BAE 1073 preamp/EQ and Universal Audio 1176 limiter.

“I like to EQ a little on the way in, just find the right tone that fits over whatever instrumental I’ve been working on and suits the vocalist,” says Hud- Mo. “Sometimes I find that it’s fairly obvious that if you record something completely dry then it can be harder to work on in terms of positioning in the mix than if you tried a little EQ on the way in.”

While willing to bake some effects in, HudMo kept a healthy ratio of wet and dry tracks, adding additional processing through his own suite of Universal Audio plug-ins. This meant that when sending mix-ready material to Nixon, who works solely in the box, HudMo could include a snapshot of specific plug-in settings, input levels, and compressor tweaks, etc., allowing for a more accurate re-creation on the other end without everything needing to be folded in stereo.

Nixon promotes printing to capture a performance, committing to two-track information when, say, a group of synth patches are arranged in unison as a single instrument, but he also appreciates having separate elements. At the same, time he cautions against over-delivering stems that will be heavily dependent on replicating time-based effects to gel. He sees a lot of artists get frustrated when what they bounce multitracks and the mixdown don’t feel the same as their initial sessions. This problem is often caused by latency and master bus processing of each rig, which changes the integral timing of the parts. He stresses finding a way to mix on your platform or be ready to calculate how things need to be nudged, because staying in the pocket is everything.

“Hudson uses a DAW some people might look down on because its monetary value is low, but he performs his all off with it,” says Nixon. “So we had to retain all the feel, which meant he went to the detail of working out exactly how many samples of delay affected timing, then we manually corrected everything he bounced down. That level of detail to keep his rhythm and musicality is the difference between Hudson Mohawke and everyone else. That’s far more important to consider than something like parallel compression, which to be honest means nothing unless you have musical content.”