Synthetic Pleasures: Chromeo

By stacking reverb-heavy synths and sampled beats, Chromeo created a massive sound fit for an ’80s filmscore

By stacking reverb-heavy synths and sampled beats, Chromeo created a massive sound fit for an ’80s filmscore

by Patrick Sisson

When Patrick Gemayel and David Macklovitch, better known as P-Thugg and Dave 1 of synthfunk duo Chromeo, decamped to a Brooklyn studio to start hammering out Business Casual, they got formal and focused. Trailed by a lingering impression that they’re more about irony than sincere homage—despite collaborations with a blueeyed soul icon like Daryl Hall—Chromeo wanted to “push the credible music angle.” Filled with intricate songwriting, their latest should lay that debate about legit versus kitsch to rest.

“P got way into piano, chords, and harmonies, and did more interesting things with my vocals and layering sounds,” says Macklovitch. “As paradoxical as it may seem for a Chromeo record, we wanted to have moments that were really moving. We tried to push the music and make it more of a touching, soundtrack-sounding record.”

Chromeo (front to back)—Dave 1 and P-Thugg.

The backbone of the Montreal band’s music is P-Thugg’s eclectic synthesizer collection, an army of 27 new and vintage pieces divided into MIDI and non-MIDI racks in the studio. During composition and songwriting, he can access anything on the fly from a Yamaha CP7E or Solina String Ensemble to a Korg Trident, Sequential Prophet 5, or Realistic MG-1, allowing for a seamless mix between generations of machines and no patching. The pulsing, strutting slow jam “Don’t Turn the Lights On” exemplifies the layering process at play, which usually begins as a 4-, 8-, or 16-bar demo composed by Gemayel with foundational melodies often tested on piano. The rhythm track was laid down then smothered in new and vintage synth lines; a bassline from the Sequential Circuits Pro-One, a “Chaka Khan-type” melody from a Prophet 8, a held G chord on the Juno, and minor descending chords on the Prophet 5.

“We stay aware of EQing to make sure every frequency is covered at least once in the song with synths or percussive elements,” says Macklovitch. “We call it matching textures.”

This constant curating and rearranging of synthesizer parts is realized via the old-school Cakewalk Pro Audio 9. Tracking without any compression, Chromeo utilizes this simple program, which handles multiple MIDI channels and an array of clunky machines, to arrange and loop music.

“It’s more efficient for what we want to do,” says Gemayel. “There’s no latency. It does MIDI very well. It does very limited wave recording options to record vocal demos or a few synths. It’s just very simple. Once you track things on it, you don’t have to move them. Once you dump it into Pro Tools or Logic, you have to move them back.”

This process is also in tune with how the duo lays down punchy rhythm tracks, an outgrowth of their hip-hop backgrounds (the two having made beats together before forming Chromeo in 2001). Meticulous sampling on the Akai MPC5000—Gemayel will scour records for hours, everything from John Phillips to D-Train, to chop specifically for one particular sound—requires a simple, stand-up interface.

“We program these drum notes hi-hat by hi-hat,” says Macklovitch. “Every snare has a different velocity, and for many of the keyboard patches, we align the notes in specific ways for a specific feel. We need something where we can play with notes on a surgical level.”

Macklovitch also values the MPC5000’s extra compression. “One thing I noticed when we changed to the 5000 was that when you layer a kick and a snare, it compresses them together very well,” he says. “It’s a little magic trick on the machine.”

Despite the on-stage flair and lyrical lothario poses Macklovitch may strike, he looks for a dry, understated vocal sound and sticks with the Neumann TLM 103 condenser.

“I started singing in the context of this band,” he says, “so I just want vocals that have this unpretentious quality to them. On the new album, you’ll notice the vocals are more up front and louder. A lot are double tracked, and we have more harmonies and choruses.”

A bit more complication and a certain type of craft come in when Gemayel jumps on the talkbox for background vocals, as he does on the neon-drenched, guitar-and-synth anthem “Night by Night.” Delivered like a true Troutman disciple, PThugg uses a Yamaha DX100 as a sound source and also records through a TLM 103. More importantly, he has mastered the intricacies of shaping sound with the temperamental machine, a process that includes the cutting of anything below 100Hz (it otherwise adds rumbling), boosting high frequencies, and mediating mic placement.

“There’s a balance between the vocals coming out of your mouth and the sound of the tube,” he says. “It’s about mic placement. If you’re too close, you’ll hear saliva, chipping, and chirping. It’s physical and you really have to know where to place yourself. Get close on the high notes.”

Recorded unadorned, the tracks came together for final mixing in the Paris studio of producer Philippe Zdar, a member of the house duo Cassius who is also known for his production job on the last Phoenix album. “His style comes from a house background so his drums are really crunchy and the rest is real airy,” says Macklovitch.

The airy sound comes from Zdar’s heavy use of EMT 140 Reverb, which was used on much of the album. Automation also played a big role and sculpted specific parts, like the biting guitar solo on “Night by Night,” originally recorded with just a Fender Deluxe Reverb amp and basic Boss DS-1 distortion pedal.

“He doesn’t even have a master fader,” says Dave. “The whole master level goes up. It makes it sound more alive and gives different energy to different moments of the song.”

With more complex arrangements and harmonies—the seven-minute track “You Make It Rough” includes a sax solo and a “Money for Nothing”-esque drum solo— Business Casual achieves more emotional resonance, mostly by sweating the arrangements and the sonic balance. Macklovitch asserts, “We work on the principle: If the sounds sound good together raw, they’ll sound even better together when you mix them.”