ELASTIC FANTASTIC

To me, pop music can be anything from Nick Drake to the Gap Band to Led Zeppelin, says a fully amped RJD2, holding forth on the range of inspiration behind
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“To me, pop music can be anything from Nick Drake to the Gap Band to Led Zeppelin,” says a fully amped RJD2, holding forth on the range of inspiration behind his latest — and easily most ambitious — solo effort. “Some pop music is danceable, and some of it isn't, but that doesn't mean it can't be great to listen to. I'm just trying to make good pop music in the same vein. I'm basically chasing the same ghost now as I was five years ago; the only difference is I'm using a lot more tools, and the means by which I'm shooting for that goal have changed much more radically on this record than on anything else.”

True to its title, The Third Hand (XL Recordings, 2007) is not only RJ's third full-length album, but it signifies the emergence of a hitherto unexplored aspect of the 30-year-old producer's song-crafting skills — namely, his ability to sing for his supper and lay down some hefty bass, guitar and synth lines. Unlike Deadringer (Definitive Jux, 2002) and Since We Last Spoke (Definitive Jux, 2004), both of which showcased RJ's intimate familiarity with the Akai MPC2000XL and his nascent stroke on a small array of synths and keyboards, The Third Hand finds him eschewing hip-hop sampling almost entirely in favor of a pure performance-based method in the studio. The results, which flip between psychedelic garage pop (“You Never Had It So Good”), acoustic folk (“Someday”), creepy sci-fi stutter-funk (“Beyond the Beyond”) and straight-up new wave (“Sweet Piece”), herald not just a change in musical direction but also in label affiliation — from New York's Def Jux to London's XL Recordings. All told, fans of RJD2's former breakbeat-shaded persona are in for a wild ride.

“All the drums are still done on the MPC,” RJ (born Ramble Jon Krohn) reassures, although from the sound of his meticulously programmed drum tracks, it's sometimes hard to tell whether an actual drummer isn't in the room. “Basically, the rest of the record is live,” he says. “I've always had a thing for big, hard drums, and that's gone in with whatever my semi-psychedelic leanings on guitar or keyboards have been. But essentially what I'm trying to do now is make the kind of records that I would have sampled, or wanted to sample, back in 2002.”

Left to his own devices (which now include Digidesign Pro Tools and a Digi 002 interface for recording), RJ has gradually transformed his basement studio in Philadelphia into a do-it-yourself haven for further explorations in analog sound. His newfound engineering approach leans heavily toward the classic Stax era for drums and, for instruments, the ideas of EMI Studio legend Geoff Emerick (author of the book Here, There and Everywhere, about recording The Beatles during the latter half of the '60s). They're lofty references, to be sure, but they're also crucial if the idea is to make a vintage-sounding record.

“Of course, you're never gonna find that magic key,” RJ says, citing what he sees as the near futility of attempting to duplicate such iconic sounds exactly. “I mean, what can you say about it? It could be The Beatles, it could be John Bonham's drum sound — whatever it is, you're never gonna find that one magic thing that finally gives it to you. But the last three or four years of my life have just been utterly dominated by absorbing every little iota of information I can get about microphones, preamps, compressors — the whole engineering game. So I'm interested in the challenge.”

GIANT STEPS

Although RJD2 has made quantum leaps in both his songwriting and engineering routines since he first began work on The Third Hand in 2005, he prefaces his launch into the fine points of his studio setup by noting that high-end equipment is not necessarily the main act when it comes to making good music.

“When I couldn't afford studio gear,” he recalls, “I used to think I needed whatever I was reading about. Then I started hanging out with some kids in a group called MHz [MC Copywrite's crew from Columbus, Ohio], who made songs by bouncing down to a double-cassette deck using a cheap DJ mixer with a five-second sampler in it and a Radio Shack mic. And I realized it's way more important to just do what you can on whatever you've got than to get sucked into thinking that good gear is needed to do the job.”

That said, when fortune smiles upon you and grants you access to some quality equipment, there's plenty to be gained from diligent experimentation with such things as mic placement, tube amplification, signal cranking and vocal layering, as RJ soon discovered. “One of the biggest things I've learned,” he says, “is that as you go down the signal path, certain things become less important.

“So let's say you want a guitar that sounds like Joe Perry [from Aerosmith],” he continues. “The guitar and the amp are the biggest contributors to achieving that; the second biggest is the microphone, and the third biggest is the mic preamp [and so on]. And it's not to say that your choice of tape machine won't have anything to do with it just because it's the last stop in the signal path — I mean, once you've tracked 20 or 30 takes of a particular instrument, the deficiencies of a crappy tape machine or a lousy conversion rate will start to add up. What I am saying is that if you've got a problem, start at the top of the food chain. That's probably the number-one thing I've learned.”

After countless hours of trial and error, RJ arrived at a recording scheme for each instrument that held predominantly steady throughout the tracking phase. Synths and keyboards were routed through a Fender Twin guitar amplifier to a '70s Realistic mic. A Yamaha baby-grand piano, which sits directly above the studio in RJ's dining room, gets miked remotely via an XLR wall jack he installed himself. Meanwhile, guitars were played through a Vox AC15 or AC30 amp to a Royer R-121 ribbon mic, and bass was recorded either direct (through vintage RCA BA21 tube-mic pres or directly into Pro Tools) or through an Ampeg B-15R Portaflex amp to an AKG D12E mic. For all his vocals, he used a Microtech Gefell UM71 and, toward the end of recording, a UM75, which he hopes to use more of on future albums.

“If you haven't noticed, reverb and harmonies are already a crutch that I have no intention of letting go,” RJ quips, referring to the stacked and processed vocals of the single “Beyond the Beyond” and to some of the effects moves he made with mix engineer Jim Bottari for the entire album. “To me, it's really like the best Dr. Dre productions, where you get this weird hybridization of hip-hop and psychedelic pop music. It was like, ‘Let me just take this to the nth degree and make the vocals as psychedelic as possible.''”

I WANT MY MPC

Equally mind-bending, of course, is the deftness of RJ's control over the capabilities and parameters of the MPC2000XL — a level of inventiveness that earns him regular comparisons to such veterans of beat-chopping finesse as DJ Shadow. And like Shadow, he hopes to reach a point where he can engineer a live drum sound that's as good as what he can capture on the MPC — and in fact, whenever time allows, he works on miking schemes with a drum kit that takes up one end of his studio. For now, though, the MPC is the answer.

“I've really got it down to the point where, all modesty aside, I can make it do whatever I want it to do,” he says. “Eventually, I'd like to break myself free of the sequenced or looped nature of what I do — I'd like to have that breathability that classic-rock bands have, but I can't do that with drums that sound so soggy and wishy-washy that it's like I'm slapping a wet noodle on the wall. It's just not working yet.”

Interestingly, RJ often ends up emulating this selfsame “breathable” quality by programming subtle variations into his beat sequences (heard to stellar effect on “You Never Had It So Good,” which truly sounds as though a live drummer is chasing RJ's catchy, Lennon-esque chord changes and vocal stylings). The illusion works because of the overall holistic approach to sampling and sequencing drums that RJ has perfected over the years.

“The key is to get one nice solid strike of the kick, the snare, the hi-hat and then each tom,” he explains, “with each piece of the kit separated enough so that there's enough decay on them. The best thing is to find a record with a drum solo where you can hear every single piece of the kit — there's a B-side to a Billy Thorpe record called Children of the Sun that's the best example of this. If you can get four hits of the exact same snare, three or four hits of the exact same hi-hat, and then every other element of the drum kit with a nice clean decay, then you're all set. Every piece is miked and engineered from the same kit, so when you replay them, they sound just like a break because they all came from the same record.”

The MPC's “16 levels” option — which spreads a drum sound across the unit's 16 pads and allows precise control over parameters such as attack, decay, velocity and tuning — also figures into the equation. From there, it's a matter of composing a beat and then reworking it with the improvisational changes an actual drummer might choose.

“When you listen to a good drummer,” RJ continues, “they're not gonna play the exact same fill in a song. So usually one of the very first things I'll do is get a groove going, and then I'll program five or six different drum fills. And you can get even deeper. Let's say I've got a 16-bar verse; I can take one of those middle bars and just put a slight variation in it, like take out a kick or put in a snare accent. The more you do these kinds of things, the less chance your ear has to get numb to the loop. Then your brain starts to think, ‘Whoa, man, maybe I'm hearing a real drummer.''”

JOURNEY INTO SOUND

“When you listen to a good drummer,” RJ continues, “they're not gonna play the exact same fill in a song. So usually one of the very first things I'll do is get a groove going, and then I'll program five or six different drum fills. And you can get even deeper. Let's say I've got a 16-bar verse; I can take one of those middle bars and just put a slight variation in it, like take out a kick or put in a snare accent. The more you do these kinds of things, the less chance your ear has to get numb to the loop. Then your brain starts to think, ‘Whoa, man, maybe I'm hearing a real drummer.''”

As is normally the case with any RJD2 production, a keen attention to detail with synth and keyboard sounds in particular is what gives the music a large part of its spaced-out, kaleidoscopic appeal. Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Farfisa, Clavinet and a stately Hammond M3 organ all find their way into The Third Hand, while an array of vintage synths that includes everything from a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 to an Oberheim OB-Xa helps bolster the alien weirdness of songs like “Work It Out” and “The Bad Penny.”

“I spent a lot of time on this record getting sounds out of some of the older keyboards,” RJ says, citing such instances as the glockenspiel-ish opening to “You Never Had It So Good,” which is actually a Clavinet that was sustained and overdriven through the Fender Twin. Inspiration for the sound came from the work of the Italian prog-rock group Goblin, known for their scores of classic Dario Argento horror films (Suspiria being one of the more legendary, as well as the George Romero-directed zombie staple Dawn of the Dead, which is one that Argento produced).

“One of the things I hate about Clavinet is that auto-wah disco sound,” RJ scoffs. “What's incredible about Goblin is that they use Clavinet in a very un-Clav way — it's like they're playing riffs. That part was one of the few things on the record where I listened back and I was like, ‘This doesn't sound anything like what a Clav is supposed to sound like.'' And that's what I was after.”

True to his hip-hop roots, RJ's devotion to harnessing grittiness in his production style is what comprises the alpha and omega when it comes to matching the sound of vinyl. And ironically, he found that one of the things he'd downplayed — one of the processes that takes place in the later stages of the signal path — would come back to haunt him.

“You know, just this week, I bought an Apogee Rosetta 800,” he sighs wistfully, “and for the first time I realized how semi-dull everything was in the input stage, where I was using the Digi 002 for A/D conversion. I still went to a nice studio to mix, so I feel that made up for it — but damn, with the Apogee, I cannot believe the difference. I'll put it this way: I'm mixing a song now that's gonna be a B-side, and there were background vocals there that I was hearing for the first time. It was like going from black-and-white TV to color.”

Even the most seasoned of pros will admit that studio engineering is a constant learning experience, but RJD2 seems to take that a step further by acknowledging that's it's not enough just to be content to learn your way around the gear — you have to will yourself into unfamiliar territory as an artist in order to map out new worlds of sound. “Even after mixing this album, I feel like I still could have pushed it a little bit,” he admits. “I'm still figuring out exactly how hard I can push a preamp, for example. There's shitty distortion that you don't want that sounds like crap, and then there's the good amount of fuzz — and that's the fuzz that I want on everything. But I'm getting there. It's just a matter of trying different things and not getting too hung up on some mythical, magical piece of gear. I mean, we're all musicians, right? That's really what it should be about.”

MIX MENAGERIE

Step into the sprawling North Philly loft complex known simply as The Studio, and you're bound to run into founder and producer Larry Gold; he might be sawing away on a cello, swilling coffee or holding forth with The Roots, Jazzy Jeff, Jill Scott or any number of Philly-based artists who happen to walk through his doors.

“Larry's a real cool dude,” RJD2 raves. “It's a trip how much he knows about indie music. He pays attention to me, he knows what cats like Diplo are doing — it's crazy how he's so tapped into what's going on in Philly.”

Gold paired RJ with mix engineer Jim Bottari (The Roots, R. Kelly, Brandy) on an SSL 4000 series console with access to a short stack of vintage outboard pieces. One such piece was a Lexicon 480L digital effects system, which figured prominently in treating virtually every vocal pass on The Third Hand.

“I wanted the record to sound cohesive,” RJ explains, “so when we mixed, we used the same reverb setting on the 480. Initially, I wanted a plate reverb or a nice echo chamber, but I gave up on that after we set up a chamber and the Lexicon still sounded better. I was adamant about using one reverb [setting]. Most of my favorite records were made when you only had one reverb choice — plate or chamber — so it seemed sensible to do that here.”

HELPING THE THIRD HAND

Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Apple PowerBook G4 1 GHz computer
Digidesign Digi 002, Pro Tools|HD

Console
SSL 4000 Series console [for mixing phase only]*

Synths, plug-ins, instruments, amps
Ampeg B-15R Portaflex bass combo amp
Casio CZ-1000 synth
GMedia GForce M-Tron plug-in
Farfisa Professional Piano
Fender Rhodes ca. 1973 (2), Twin guitar amp
Hammond M3 organ
Hohner Clavinet E7 electric piano
Ibanez electric guitar ca. 1979
Moog Rogue synth
Nomad 49B combo organ
Oberheim OB-Xa synth
Rickenbacker 4001 bass
Sequential Circuits Prelude, Prophet-5 synths
Yamaha CS-40m synth
Vox AC15 and AC30 guitar combo amps
Wurlitzer electric piano (2)

Mics, effects, EQs, preamps
AKG D12E mic
Electro-Harmonix Octave Multiplexer, POG, Q-Tron and Small Stone effects pedals
Lexicon 480L digital reverb *
Microtech Gefell UM71, UM75 mics
Neve 33115 EQs *
Pultec EQ-P1 *
RCA BA21 preamps
Realistic cardioid mic
Royer R-121 ribbon mic
Universal Audio LA-2A compressor/leveling amp *
Urei 1176 compressor/limiter

Monitors
Alesis M1s
Yamaha NS10s
ProAc near-field monitors *

* property of The Studio, Philadelphia, Pa.