If you've ever witnessed Colette DJing, you can attest to a feeling of anticipation that underlies her sets. This positive tension is due to the crowd's knowledge that at some point, Colette will pick up the microphone and start singing over a track. When and how often this will happen is unclear, but the excitement building up to it is palpable.
Unlike some female DJs who decide they can sing when it's time for them to make original music — and who are frequently mistaken — Colette is a bona fide vocalist. She not only studied voice for nine years during her childhood but also sang in choirs and participated in vocal competitions. Colette started singing over DJ sets at the age of 17, and in 1997, she began DJing herself.
“The more I sang over DJs, the more I liked it,” Colette remembers. “I thought if I learned to DJ, it would be a lot easier. I would know what the song is, and I could play songs I like to sing over. I never thought I would be a DJ. Everyone I knew started DJing when they were 12, and here I was, 22. I felt I was old.”
Eight years later, Colette is a notable DJ, and part of that success is a result of her partnership with fellow DJs Heather, Dayhota and Lady D. The four ladies banded together in their hometown of Chicago to throw a monthly event under the banner Super Jane. Not so much a female DJ collective as a group of friends who support each other, Super Jane and the buzz surrounding it began to grow. One of the group's goals has been to develop into DJs to be reckoned with — not just female DJs to be reckoned with.
DJ START TO POP TART
Following a string of mix CDs — Starfly (Raveworld.net, 2000), In the Sun (Afterhours, 2000) and Our Day (Nettwerk, 2001) — Colette releases Hypnotized (Om, 2005), her debut artist album. As expected, Hypnotized is a vocal record. Not restricted to the house tempos that Colette plays out, it has moments of introspective mellowness (“A Little More,” “Smile for Me”) as well as pop gems (“What Will She Do for Love,” “I Didn't Mean to Turn You On”). Nevertheless, she does include some of that house-music feel on “Our Day” and “The One.” And she invited a slew of musicians and producers to collaborate with her, including Home & Garden, Greenskeepers, J.T. Donaldson and Lance DeSardi, Chris Penny, Kaskade and Drew K.
Writing in the style of a classic pop-vocal record, Colette approached the tracks on Hypnotized traditionally, focusing on lyrics and melody as she directed how the music should proceed in alliance with the producers. This is a far cry from her previous work on 12-inch singles, most of which featured her vamping or a looped version of her voice. Drew K (Bran Van 3000, Ashanti, Thomas Dolby) and his Angelhouse Studios in Los Angeles figure prominently in the creation of Hypnotized, which was also recorded in Chicago, New York and Salt Lake City during a four-year period.
“Smile for Me,” originally written by Colette and Penny, is perhaps the most organic song on Hypnotized. “It was one of those songs I wrote in 10 minutes,” Colette says. “For a lot of the songs, we would start to write a loop. I used to play the piano for a long time, so I would play it or sing it and say, ‘I want something like that.’ After we'd worked on that, we'd start thinking about melodies. I find it easier to write to music. I can't sit and write a song. I've done it a couple times, but it would always be changed a lot, so I like to have some idea of what a song is going to sound like. Then, I will focus on writing a chorus and a verse.”
THE LIVE ORGANIC SIDE
When Colette took “Smile for Me” to Angelhouse, Drew made the decision to retrack it using some keyboard parts that Penny had started as guide tracks. Penny also recorded live drums for “Smile for Me” after Drew did some drum programming on an Akai MPC2000XL. Working with the perfectly timed programming as a guide helped Penny stay on point with the tempo. “Chris' meter is fantastic, which is not easy,” Drew says. “He got the drums in two or three passes.”
Drew then applied some standard drum miking: AKG D 112 on the kick, Shure SM57s on the snare (top and bottom) and toms and Neumann KM 84 on overheads and hi-hat. Rounding out the live elements are an acoustic guitar miked with a Neumann U 87 on the body and a KM 84 on the neck (aimed toward the body) and a Music Man bass played through an Ampeg B15 vintage amplifier. Quite thorough in miking the bass, Drew close-miked the front of the cab with a Røde Classic II, the edge of the cab with a D 112, and he added a third condenser mic a short distance away from the front.
In contrast to the songs that took some extensive miking techniques, “A Little More” and “So Special” are significantly more electronic. When Colette took her prewritten material to Angelhouse, a lot of what was in the demos stayed put, though it did receive some manipulation in Digidesign Pro Tools by “throwing a bunch of stuff on the canvas and weeding stuff out and moving things around,” Drew says. Aside from a bunch of synths, the sessions also featured a vintage Martin acoustic guitar — miked with a Røde Classic II, NT2 and NT1 — and a custom-built Fender Stratocaster run through Line 6 and vintage pedals and a Fender Super Deluxe 410 combo amp.
As for vocals, Drew went for a simple chain and thick layers. “I wanted it to sound very organic, not adding anything except maybe some compression,” he says. “The process for recording vocals is building things section by section: Get all the verses done and then do the chorus. We don't work through the song chronologically — verse, then chorus, then the next verse. If she's in the performance mode of doing verses, I want her to stay in there because it's a different performance level. I would get a lead vocal performance, then do background vocals. I would do all of the arrangements with harmonies and phrasings on the fly as we were doing that. It's pretty thick vocals on the chorus. It's pop-vocal production.”
“When I was doing stacked three-part harmonies, it wasn't fun,” Colette says. “It was very time-consuming. You spend so much time creating harmonies on the song; then, they're set so low [in the mix]. I was like, ‘Let's make it louder. I did all that work — I want everyone to hear it.’ And [Drew said], ‘No. It's there for accents.’”
Depending on the type of vocal performance required for the song, the mic choice flips between the U 87 and the NT2 or the Classic II. The processing chain goes from the mic directly into the preamp, to tape and then to Pro Tools. “It's really hard to keep the relative attenuation of a person's vocal in check,” Drew explains. “A lot of people will use a ton of compression, low-shelf and all kinds of EQ to make up for maybe not having enough experience recording vocals.”
HOUSE, POP, JAZZ MISH-MASH
The Angelhouse Studios rig has a multicard Pro Tools TDM 5.1.1 system running on Mac OS 9 (“HD 3 running on a G5 crashes incessantly,” Drew says). With a gaggle of plug-ins, Drew feels confident in the setup. “You need to be focusing on performance,” he says. “Your job as a great producer or engineer is catering to the artist and the song. You pave the path for the artist to get a great performance. If you do that, everything else will fall into place.”
But to get those great performances, great song-writing certainly helps. “Before we started writing the album, we spent a lot of time listening,” Drew says. “What I was getting from Colette — stuff she had listened to growing up, stuff that got her off — had a lot of live content as well as more sophisticated harmonic content. She liked things that had jazz voicings, minor sevens and flat nines, adding altered voicings to chords. We would really analyze an eight-bar section or 16-bar section and talk about what she wanted the song to do, what kind of arc she wanted the song to have, how we would incorporate that and make it happen. We would go through sounds together finding sounds that inspired her.”
“I grew up listening to songs in the '80s,” Colette elaborates. “I was totally a radio-pop child; then, I went into house music. I was listening to Stevie Nicks and then going to listen to Derrick Carter and Mark Farina. I knew I wanted to do an album that had dance music on it because that's where I'm coming from. But I also wanted to do slower songs because I never get to do that live. I come from a classical upbringing, but I haven't done anything that was slower than 125 beats per minute in years.”
When working with Ryan Raddon, otherwise known as Kaskade, and Finn Bjarnson toward the end of the Hypnotized recording sessions, Colette sent a lot of music back and forth on an FTP Website. After the producers sent her MP3s of loose rhythmic and musical ideas, Colette decided which ones she wanted to work on further. Among the tracks borne of this treatment was “What You Want,” a sample-based, rhythm-heavy number with an identifiable, driving and heavy bass sound.
For that particular song, Colette flew to Salt Lake City to work at Counterpoint Studios with Raddon. “I just played bass,” Raddon says. “I used a plug-in to distort it, giving it that buzz at the top. It's got this weird buzzing sound that is unique, created by whacking the bass out over and over again.”
Colette recorded her vocals at Counterpoint by using Brauner VM1 and U 87 mics going through a Grace preamp and into a Pro Tools|HD 3 system. “Colette doesn't sing very loud; a lot of the stuff is more chill and intimate vocal stylings,” Raddon says. “The Brauner picked that up. The Neumann U 87 was a little different but real clean. And the Grace preamps don't color the sound a lot, either.”
“I thought I knew a lot about singing,” Colette reflects. “I have these tapes from when I first started singing over house music, and my pitch is really great. Technically, I was in a great place, but it's stiff and superfunny. Over the next five years, I was learning to be comfortable just singing and not being technically perfect. Now, I'm trying to combine those two. What I learned more than anything is how to write a proper song and communicate with other musicians and writers what I want from the song. At the end of doing this record — when I figured out I know what I want, and I can really do this — I was so happy.
“Now, it's all about integrating the album [into my DJ sets],” she continues. “I have the actual arrangements and background vocals on CD. It feels different to me. When I started doing some of the songs live, it was making me really nervous. It means a lot more to be singing my songs.”
SELECT HYPNOTIZED GEAR
Computers, DAWs, recording hardware:
Apple Mac G4/1.7 GHz computer w/1.25 GB RAM
Digidesign 13-Slot Expansion Chassis, 888|24 I/Os (2), Pro Tools 5.1.1 software, Pro Tools|HD 3 system
Consoles, mixers, interfaces:
Mackie 32•8 console, HUI Universal DAW controller
Samplers, drum machines:
Akai MPC2000XL sampler
Clavia Nord Lead 2
Roland MKS-70 Super JX, XV-5080
Studio Electronics SE-1
Yamaha Motif Rack
Turntables, DJ mixers:
Pioneer DJM-600 mixer
Technics SL-1210M5G turntables
Mics, preamps, EQs, compressors, effects:
AMS Neve 1073 Reissue preamp
Brauner VM1 mic
Focusrite ISA 428 Pre Pack multichannel front end
Joemeek VC1 preamp
Neumann U 87 mic
PreSonus ACP88 compressor
Pultec EQP-1A EQ
Requisite PAL preamps (2)
Røde Classic II, NT1, NT2 mics
UREI LA-2A preamps (2)