Fresh Air - EMusician

Fresh Air

In a quiet residential neighborhood in San Leandro, Calif., in a cottage at the back of Josh Gabriel's house, which he shares with his wife and two smiley
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In a quiet residential neighborhood in San Leandro, Calif., in a cottage at the back of Josh Gabriel's house, which he shares with his wife and two smiley toddlers, there's a cozy studio. On the walls are subway-size promotional Gabriel & Dresden posters for shows in Singapore and Tokyo. In front of the computer and Apple Cinema Display monitor is an exercise ball, which sits next to a log drum and a Minimoog Voyager. On the opposite wall is an arrangement of photos from a Halloween gig in San Francisco, with Dave Dresden dressed up as Robert Smith of The Cure. It's such a quiet, calm hideaway in back of this house — a perfect place to become a studio hermit — that it's hard to visualize widespread demand for the duo outside of these walls, that they'll be touring around the world, from March to October 2006, in places as distant as Jakarta.

After five years of DJing, remixing and producing together, Gabriel and Dresden get along famously. Dresden is goofy and full of one-liners. Gabriel is the serious but good-humored production whiz. He keeps the conversation on track and packs in tip after trick, explaining all the things he's discovered over the years. Although the two each have a hand in DJing and producing, Dresden and Gabriel take on different roles, with Dresden's strong suit being DJing and Gabriel's being producing. What's interesting about how the duo works is how they integrate both in the studio.

SONIC SYMBIOSIS

Gabriel has been making music with computers since the '80s. After studying music composition at California Institute of the Arts and the Institute of Sonology in The Netherlands, Gabriel worked some postproduction jobs before co-founding Mixman music software. Meanwhile, Dresden — who has been DJing for 16 years — took on several different music-industry jobs, including an A&R job, radio station music director and scout for DJ Pete Tong. Since pairing up their DJ and production knowledge five years ago as Gabriel & Dresden, the duo has racked up 14 No. 1 Billboard Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart remixes and a No. 1 Billboard Dance Radio Airplay chart hit with Motorcycle's “As the Rush Comes.” Most recently, they were commissioned by Oscar-nominated composer Gustavo Santaolalla to remix the title track from Brokeback Mountain.

One way that Gabriel and Dresden have been efficient with their remixing process is by getting their DJ and production setups going simultaneously. “Sometimes I'll burn the parts of a song that we're remixing,” Dresden says, “and Josh will be playing a bass line on a [Logic] ES1 or something, and I'll be playing the parts on CD and figuring something out. We've been doing this for years like that. It's kind of the way that we've been able to communicate musically instead of me trying to learn all the technical jargon. I've learned some of it, but this way, we're doing what we do best at the same time.”

That form of communication has lent itself to Gabriel & Dresden's first artist album, Gabriel & Dresden, on the duo's new label, Organized Nature (2006). Aside from using the DJ setup to help inspire sounds and arrangement ideas for remixes — with Dresden DJing alongside Gabriel as he works in Logic or Live — the duo also used it for the album. “There have been times when we had [the DJ gear] set up and other times when we didn't have it set up, and our music has been different for it,” Gabriel says. “When we did it, we were like, ‘Ohh, we're idiots! This is much better!’ Imagine you're working on a song but having somebody DJ in the background, and then every ten minutes it's like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa! What was that? That was interesting.’ It's kind of like having a sample library, but instead of a sample library, it's songs. And that gives you a feel much quicker when you're playing a song than when you're just playing a loop from a sample CD. And it's happening in real time with two people doing it.”

BLUE LIGHTS, FUNNY SOUNDS

One day in February 2005, Gabriel and Dresden were going to the store to buy a computer monitor, but the siren's call of the Moog Voyager dashed that plan. “We got it on a whim,” Gabriel admits. “For all the plug-ins that we have, in ten minutes we were making things with that in the store that we never were making at home.” The Moog — along with a Roland TR-909, guitars, bass and odd instruments like a German log drum and metal bell plates played with mallets — took the guys away from the computer screen and helped bring a live component to their pop-structured dance tracks. But the sounds that came from those instruments were just the beginning.

“We use the plug-ins and samples to be our synthesizer, and Logic is our instrument,” Gabriel says. “Sounds that we get from the synth, the guitar and the 909 are just starting points. Things don't really become what they are until they're really processed.” For example, the instrumental track “Eleven” features a pulsating Voyager bass and layers of oscillating synth sounds. “Someone might say, ‘What's that string sound?’ It's being delayed, distorted, phased…. And it sounds like there are harmonies, but it's actually automating a pitch shifter. Then it's going through reverb, tremolo, then the NorthPole filter.” Obviously, Gabriel and Dresden don't skimp on the effects plug-ins, but the result is an atmosphere that is surprisingly uncluttered and clear, due to some clever efforts to create space in the mix.

SITTING IN THE MIDDLE

Gabriel & Dresden features two lead vocalists, Molly Bancroft and Jan Burton, as well as backup vocals from Dresden; Gabriel; Gabriel's wife, Kristy; and even their little son, Rowan. Vocals also get an onslaught of plug-in treatment. Sometimes just a background vocal will get chopped, reversed, reverbed, delayed, phased, distorted and more.

The separation between vocals, and the separation in the overall mix, is remarkable. Part of that sound is a result of the outboard gear that Gabriel and Dresden swear by: a Studio Projects tube mic through a Grace 101 preamp into a Summit Audio TLA-50 compressor and into a MOTU 828mkII interface. Gabriel especially loves the TLA-50. “It just gives it life,” Gabriel says, “and it definitely takes the harder work out of getting [a vocal] to sound good.”

The signal chain aside, two of the album's highlights, “Let Go” (featuring Bancroft) and “Enemy” (featuring a somewhat Bowie-sounding Burton), are good examples of Gabriel and Dresden's methodology of creating a very obvious lead vocal and separated, secondary layers. “[With the background vocals], there's no high end or low end. It's just very midrangey,” Gabriel says. “Basically, when you think of the sibilance, the high-end part of the voice is the thing that gives you intelligibility. So the high end is what makes the words clear. And what's clearer than one voice? Nothing. Everything else is going to get blurrier the more you add. So we want the one voice clear, and all the others, to some degree, have the high end pulled down so that the high frequencies don't compete as much with the lead voice. It seems like taking away high end would make it be muddier, but it doesn't. If you take away all of the high end off of all the voices except for one, then one peaks through and creates a definite position of all the little vocals. The layer comes from the pitch part of the voice, not the sibilance, so you can kill a lot of high end and low end, and it feels layered, but it doesn't get in the way.”

Leaving several vocals with all the high end in place ends up being overload for the ears, Gabriel adds. “If I take off all the things that are killing high end, watch what happens — it hurts,” he says. “In this case, we're using a shelf, so if we pull 5 dB down from 5,600 Hz, it's like the vocals are losing a little bit of the edge. It just gives the feeling that they're falling behind because they don't have the same cutting power. And then to kill the bass, I've got a highpass filter at 1,100. It doesn't sound full, but it's acting as an in-between.”

Meanwhile, Gabriel and Dresden's own vocals — for example, on the single “Tracking Treasure Down” — are treated with a pitch shifter in Logic. But rather than get the Cher Auto-Tune effect, the duo created a channel for every note they'd hit in a part and set the pitch shifter on each channel to a different note. “So let's say you have a melody that has seven notes in it: We'll set up seven tracks, and each one will have a different one of these on a different note,” Gabriel says. “And so the vocal will end up looking like a checkerboard. Basically, what it's saying is, ‘Everything that comes through this channel, do your best to make it an F.’ If you say, ‘Do your best to make it an F, an A, a G#,’ then if you're in between, it'll do the in-between thing. But if you only have one note, it will make everything be that one note.”

THE KICK IS KING

Drums are an integral part of a mix for hip-hop and electronic music. But there are dissenting views about layering drums when it comes to the different genres. In hip-hop, you'll often hear producers say they'll layer their kicks. Gabriel and Dresden tend to layer snares a lot, but rarely kicks. “We have a couple where the high end of the kick comes from one side and the low-end of the kick comes from the other side, but rarely do we layer them because the kick provides tone,” Gabriel says. “If you're layering them, the frequencies are competing, so you get beating instead of something that's pure.”

And a pure kick is the number-one goal when the duo is mixing. “We do everything arrangementwise to get things away from the kick, whether it means choosing a bass rhythm in which there's nothing on the downbeat or fading in or EQing it, taking the low end out only when the kick is happening — whatever we can do to get rid of the kick conflicting with something else,” Gabriel says.

To keep things from getting in the way of the kick (and for a general economical use of space in the mix), Gabriel and Dresden use a lot of shelving filters to take away high and low end. “You'd be surprised at how much you can take away from something and have it still function,” Gabriel says. An example is the pulsating Moog bass synth in “Eleven.” It's fluid, but as soon as the kick hits, the bass fades. In Logic, Gabriel did fade-ins at the quarter note, and although the bass has holes in it when soloed, nothing seems missing when played alongside the kick. “If you get the Scissors and hold down Option, wherever you cut from the left edge to wherever you're cutting will repeat that cut,” he says. “So if you cut on the quarter notes, then boom, you just cut 100 things, and then you just do a fade-in, and boom, now those all have fade-ins. And you can control the time and the curve.”

BASS HOG

“Bass is something that steals a lot of energy from stuff,” Gabriel says. “If you've got ten dollars to spend, and you spend seven dollars on bass, you only got three to spend anywhere else.” One way Gabriel says the duo uses bass space wisely is to put bass sounds through one bus and put a limiter such as Waves' L2 Ultramaximizer on that track. “Sometimes it's pretty severe so that we can make sure that it's always taking up this amount of space, no matter what happens in the bass,” he says. Gabriel will also put a handful of simple bass parts on a bus and put a multiband compressor through it, “to give it a unifying feel,” he says. “Going through one bus, we're able to control it like one synth.” Another favorite plug-in for bass is the Ohm Force Frohmage. “I can't even describe what it's doing,” Gabriel admits. “It's probably some French math thing.”

To really corral the bass, Gabriel makes sure that there is no superfluous low end taking up space in tracks that don't need it. “You have to make sure that your drum tracks, unless it's the kick drum, have nothing below 400 Hz,” Gabriel says, “because bass anywhere else — bass in your snare, bass in some sample or something else — is going to take away from the bass in your bass.”

But the duo's secret weapon for judging the bass situation is, surprisingly, an exercise ball. “Toward the end of working on the album, my back had gone out from sitting and not enough exercising,” Gabriel says. His chiropractor suggested Gabriel sit on a blow-up exercise ball to alleviate the pain and stress on his back, which he scoffed at until the pain got too unbearable. “I sat on it, and all of a sudden, the subwoofer started vibrating the ball, and I started feeling the bass, and after a couple days of learning how it felt — floppy, muddy or good — I'm telling you, the mixes just changed 50 percent for the better, wouldn't you say?” Gabriel asks Dresden.

“It went from muddy to actually being able to hear the sound,” Dresden concurs.

SEAMLESS SEGUES

Gabriel and Dresden have both been known as DJs for years, so when it came time to mix Gabriel & Dresden, they felt the pressure to make it come across like a mix CD. But they also didn't want it to be mistaken for a mix CD. So the guys decided to mix the songs together with beatless transitions. Laying out the tracks back-to-back in Live, they quickly put together seamless transitions between tracks in the overall 124 to 135 — bpm range.

“We used parts from the songs to create the transitions,” Dresden says. “We did this once before when we mixed the Nip/Tuck soundtrack, and they gave us a bunch of songs that didn't really go together and wanted a DJ mix. And so we stole pieces from songs to create segues.”

The automation features in Ableton Live made the transitions easy to accomplish. During the in-between parts, the guys set tempo, volume and filter fades into action. They also stretched the lengths of sounds to fit with the music and even made whole chord changes at the 11th hour. “The idea of making music in this scared me to shit because it felt like a toy,” Gabriel says, “but the more we got into it, the more it's like, you can really do things fast.”

INDIE INNOVATORS

Although Gabriel and Dresden are a duo entrenched in making electronic pop music for the dancefloor, everything that the two do is influenced by music outside the realm of dance music. “We're viewed as people who make dance music, but dance music isn't where we started,” Gabriel says. “We started listening to Depeche Mode, The Cure, Yaz, New Order, Duran Duran.… And those things influenced us just as much as acid house and find their way in here just as much as anything.” You can hear it in the Cure-esque, Fender Bass VI — sounding guitar in “Closer” and even Bauhaus-like bass breakdown in “Dangerous Power.”

Gabriel and Dresden also have their ears tuned to new directions in music. “One thing that I noticed about a year and a half ago is that there is a whole generation of kids making music now that were raised on the rave scene, on hip-hop, on rock, punk and whatnot,” Dresden says. “A lot of the innovations in music are coming from the indie-rock sector right now.” Gabriel cites the Postal Service and !!!, while Dresden mentions Interpol and TV on the Radio. “We love how it has embraced electronic music and '60s and '80s music, just really good songs,” Dresden says. Although there have been many declarations over the years that dance music is dead, it's less alarmist and more accurate to say that it's just ever mutating. And as the melting pot of music continues, Gabriel and Dresden continue to melt with it.

Load this issue's Media Essentials CD-ROM or go towww.remixmag.com/cd_romfor information about the Gabriel & Dresden remixing contest.

THE TRUTH ABOUT PANNING

Josh Gabriel may have a tendency to use 37 million effects on one track, but panning is rarely one of them. Here's his philosophy on why he holds back on panning. “Panning is itself an effect,” he says. “It's kind of like wearing jewelry or something. If you're doing it, you should have a reason for it, not just because it's cool, and not just because you feel like putting the hi-hat in the left channel. I've gotten mixes from people who are starting out, and they've got everything panned every which way. It's confusing because it's saying something, but I don't know what it's saying.

“We save panning for when it's really important. So the things that have the most panning on it are vocals and textures or pads that we're using to make it feel spacious. And things only feel spacious against other things that don't feel spacious. I think for us, vocals, especially background vocals, have a wider range of panning. ‘Tracking Treasure Down’ is an example. If you listen to Dave and I singing in the background, in order to make the chorus sound interesting and sound like different people, we pan both of our voices differently. And because we don't use panning all the time, you notice it.”

TRACKED DOWN TREASURE

Computers

Apple Cinema Display monitor, Mac G5 dual 2
GHz with 2.5 GB of RAM, PowerBook G4

Console/mixer, interfaces

Behringer MX1604 mixer
M-Audio FireWire 410 mobile recording interface
MOTU 828mkII interface

Drum machine, turntables, DJ mixer

Pioneer CDJ-1000s CD turntables, DJM-909 mixer
Roland TR-909 drum machine
Technics SL-1200 turntables

Mic, mic preamp, compressor

Studio Projects T3 tube mic
Summit Audio TLA-50 tube compressor
Grace 101 mic preamp

Synths, modules, software and plug-ins, instruments

Ableton Live 5 software
Apple Logic Pro 7 software
Custom metal bell plates
Fender Jazz Bass, Stratocaster guitar
IK Multimedia Sonik Synth soft synth
Moog Minimoog Voyager synth
Native Instruments Reaktor soft synth
Ohm Force Fromage plug-in
Prosoniq NorthPole Resonant Filter plug-in
Roland SH-101 synth
Sequential Circuits Prophet-600 synth
Spectrasonics Atmosphere, Trilogy and Stylus RMX soft synths
Takamine acoustic guitar
Tuned log drum
Waves L1 and L2 plug-ins

Monitors

Mackie HR824 monitors, HRS120 subwoofer