The man of a thousand freaky hats, Jay Kay, is sitting in the English garden of his Chillington, Buckinghamshire, estate in England. A stronghold during the British civil wars, Kay's home was once owned by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Its lush, sculpted gardens were designed in 1754 by famous English landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown. “I am just sitting in the garden with my German shepherds, Luger and Titan,” the Jamiroquai mastermind says. “It's a very pleasant English summer day, but we only get three a year.”
Weather aside, selling more than 20 million records worldwide has its rewards, not the least being the freedom to pursue whatever sound or style strikes you. Since the early 1990s, Jamiroquai has been a worldwide phenomenon, with a string of chart-topping albums crossing pop, funk and dance divides and making Kay a star. But life was not always so grand for the pint-size singer and Grammy, MTV and GQ awards winner. The onetime poster boy of acid jazz, Kay was born to a jazz vocalist mother in Stretford, England, on Dec. 30, 1969. Homeless by age 15, Kay led a petty-crime-ridden existence that culminated in a near-fatal knife attack and a false arrest for a crime that he didn't commit. Chastened by his troubles, Kay directed his energies to music, and Jamiroquai — so-called after the musical verb jam combined with Iroquois, the American Indian tribe — was born.
Kay's demos caught the attention of the Acid Jazz label, which issued his first single, “When You Gonna Learn?” in 1992. Jamiroquai's debut album, Emergency on Planet Earth (Columbia, 1993), spawned two UK hit singles and led to global adulation as Kay danced and sang like some genetic mutation of Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. The Return of the Space Cowboy (Sony, 1994), Travelling Without Moving (Work, 1996) and Synkronized (Work, 1999) were all universal smashes. And then 2001's A Funk Odyssey (Epic) found Jamiroquai exploring a heavily processed, house-friendly sound but to little U.S. success. Four years later — with his band, including guitarist Rob Harris, percussionist Sola Akingbola, drummer Derrick McKenzie, keyboardist Matt Johnson, bassist Paul Turner and co-producer Mike Spencer — Kay remains intent on making music that is free of trends and supremely old-school in nature. The group's sixth album, Dynamite (Sony, 2005), expresses Jamiroquai's patented pop-soul sound through a maze of analog keyboards, an SSL mixing console and two Studer tape machines abetted by Digidesign Pro Tools (with Cakewalk Sonar used for postproduction string recording).
Written in Spain, Italy, Costa Rica, Scotland and England and recorded and mixed in New York (Sony Studios); Los Angeles (Sound Castle); and, finally, Kay's Buckinghamshire home studio, Dynamite is the brainchild of Kay, Harris and Johnson. “Matt and Rob understand me,” Kay says of their writing process. “I like to work really quickly [using a laptop, a Sequential Circuits DrumTraks drum machine, a guitar and a Yamaha Motif 6 keyboard]. I have the melody, and we will keep going through it looking for the right chord. It is a filter process. I didn't want people to say that this sounded like our earlier records. I wanted to make every song a single. I always want to do something better than what I have done before.
“And this was the first time that we played everything into Pro Tools and used it in that form,” Kay continues. “Our past albums, particularly Synkronized, were never as punchy as the tracks really deserved. So we got in Mike Spencer, who is an expert with Pro Tools. When it came to drums, it made a huge difference. If we only used live drums, we couldn't compete against the people who are using machine drums. By mixing the two, it retained the live feel and made it punchier.”
Co-producer Spencer was Jamiroquai's ace in the hole, his work with artists as diverse as Kylie Minogue and Badmarsh & Shri giving him a deep understanding of both glossy production techniques and underground-centric sounds. Speaking from London's Orinoco Studios, Spencer explains how he used Pro Tools with analog tape on Dynamite: “The primary philosophy in the recording of Dynamite was to try and not make a processed-heavy record. Anyone can do that now. We recorded as a band onto tape using the Studer A827 and then transferred at 96 kHz into Pro Tools. Then, I would find bits and parts where grooves would sit right and, if necessary, replicate them. I would try not to maneuver things too much but access points in Pro Tools where there was a natural groove within the whole band and work within those confines. We used natural drum sounds, but I did use Pro Tools' SoundReplacer to pump up the sounds a bit. And the band [members] are great players. So instead of a random unquantized sound, you actually do have a natural groove into sequenced parts.”
Natural-sounding grooves dominate Dynamite, as on the robo-humanism of opener “Feels Just Like It Should” and the Off the Wall-style title track. From the schizoid keyboard and bass tones of “Electric Mistress” to the irresistible funk standouts “Starchild” and (the Chic-worthy) “Give Hate a Chance,” Dynamite's old-school style is brewed, cooled and delivered complete with new-school efficiency. Tons of Dynamite's detail was built on powerful live performances — but tweaking meant plug-ins.
“I used the Waves DeEsser threshold automation to make sure Jay's vocals were not crushing high-end harmonics,” Spencer says. “I also used the Waves C4 Multiband Parametric Processor as a corrective tool. It scares me slightly, but I am careful with it. There is no compression on the way in on anything. I recorded everything flat, dry and transparent with no limiting. These days, recording 24-bit at 96 kHz, your dynamic range and frequency bandwidth are such that as long as you get your recording levels right on the way in, you have all these absolute massive source sounds that you can manipulate and color on the way out. I used Amp Farm, Lo-Fi and AmpliTube a lot. Lo-Fi is primitive and frustrating, but the actual sound is good. The saturation control takes out a lot of low-end harmonics.
“I ran a bunch of different EQs and compressors until I found the sound I wanted,” he continues. “For a grainy reverb, I always use the Digidesign DVerb. It is a really unfashionable plug-in, really boingy and old-fashioned. [But] because the reflections are probably a little bit farther apart and it is a little less dense, it cuts through a mix better than a lot of these sampling reverbs, which are so dense that you often can't get the early reflections across.”
THICK ICING ON THE CAKE
“Feels Just Like It Should” is a particularly experimental track with myriad outrageous sound effects and a bass line created by Kay singing through a TC-Helicon VoiceWorks processor. The song begins with what sounds like the Terminator cracking his neck in Tourette's-like motions, followed by space-pod swooshes and laser-beam sounds over a fat funk pulse.
“The TC-Helicon VoiceWorks is kind of gimmicky,” Matt Johnson says. “It can turn your voice into Barry White and give you different harmonies. Jay just started singing this riff into it using an SM58 very close up. We took one line from that and put it through the Digidesign Lo-Fi, Derrick put a beat to it, and that was the basis for the whole song. That was then augmented by an Oscar monosynth. That was the synth-bass sound on that track, which then doubles in the chorus.”
“There are several different layers in that song,” Spencer adds. “We had the basic groove but needed a central, overtly processed kind of centerpiece. Matt and Rob did some work in Logic on their laptops to create a couple sounds, and I sampled those in. Using their stuff at 44.1 sounded really grainy and focused; we used that right down the center of the track.”
Johnson also contributed a variety of bizarre synth sounds, and Harris weighed in with his outboard bag of tricks. The sum effect is like Sly & the Family Stone jamming with a glam-inspired Jimi Hendrix. “Those sounds were mostly the analog synths,” Johnson explains. “I did use [an Arturia] CS-80 soft synth for some of the spacey sounds. Other sounds are off the Oscar, just me doing a take with its mad noises; then, Mike would cut it up. And some of it is Rob's Strat through this crazy filter, a Line 6 FM4 Filter Modeler pedal. Rob did some mad stuff on that, playing it while Mike or I would be moving the knobs on the unit. That way, we got some random sounds, which we then judiciously placed in the tune.”
BATTLE THE CLONES
Kay and Jamiroquai continue to evolve, with their soul-funk primitivism and supreme pop melodicism tempered by novel approaches to recording and mixing. But because technique means nothing without inspiration, Kay keeps his inspirations close to his chest but his own vision even closer. As one who has lived through roughly 13 years of music-industry trends and changes, he knows what it takes to make individual music that still strikes a popular nerve.
“Firstly, if you are in a band situation, make sure the person at the front gets you noticed and can carry the band,” Kay prescribes. “There are a lot of good bands where the front person just isn't good enough and doesn't lead the band. It is important to go to the record company with the whole package. The bottom line is, you have to work hard, and once you get your foot in the door, you've got to keep it in the door. The hardest part is staying there.
“Finding a vision takes you being brave enough to not do what everyone else is doing,” Kay adds. “Do what suits you, and do what you are good at. Be inspired, but give your inspirations your own twist. And don't follow anyone else.”
After recording tracks with the Studers and flying those into Pro Tools, Jamiroquai co-producer Mike Spencer mixed down onto an Ampex ATR-100 ½-inch and then rerecorded back into Digidesign Pro Tools at 192 kHz. But prior to the final mixdown, he spent part of the mixing process creating stems. “In New York and L.A., I was mixing to Pro Tools, then mixing the stems, or subgroups, down to the ½-inch at Jay's studio in England,” Spencer says. “A mix would comprise the basic final mix with 10 subgroups so we could rebuild the whole thing in Jay's studio on his old SSL console. I would do the final tweaks on those groups and, if necessary, open other groups again. For instance, if I had all the background vocals coming down to two faders and I wasn't happy, I would keep the existing stems running and open up the BVs [background vocals] and run that live and direct. So a mix might be 10 faders in the first verse and 60 faders in the chorus. It is not for the fainthearted, but it is a hugely powerful way of mixing. It is much more accurate than old SSL recordings where you cannot match the sounds. This gave me huge power over mixes and manipulation as long as we kept our logs accurate.”
TO CLICK OR NOT TO CLICK
Dynamite's pumped-up grooves are equal parts inspiration and manipulation. “Grooves come from me internally,” Jay Kay explains. “Melody dictates tempo. Most of the time, I just give a pointer to [drummer] Derrick [McKenzie] where the groove should be. If you take a track like ‘Love Blind,’ there is a 6/8 part in that; it was recorded live, and the chorus is much faster than the verses. I feel that you lose that if you use a click. The 6/8 jazz bit jumps out of this hip-hop bit, straight out of the blue. I wanted to get that stuff in there — it shows that your band is a real band.”
Conversely, co-producer Mike Spencer built a click track in other songs using an '80s-era drum machine. “We used the old Sequential Circuits DrumTraks as our timing reference,” Spencer says. “It hasn't got a precise tempo; it is measured in units. We used that as the click for ‘Seven Days,’ for instance. It doesn't have precise time, so I would use it as a timing reference [and] record the band freewheeling into Pro Tools over that machine. Then, I calculated the tempo, identified a particular beat at a particular point and calculated back from that and would grid up the machine accordingly. When the band recorded live, I would calculate a tempo and again work backwards from that and adjust any parts that I thought had drifted too much, though Derrick is very tight. All of our tempos were measured in hundredths of a beat per minute.”
Computers, DAWs, recording hardware, consoles:
Ampex ATR-100 ½-inch mastering deck
Apple Mac G5/dual 2.5GHz computer
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD system
SSL SL 6000E/G console
Studer A827 24-track 2-inch tape recorders (2)
Antares Mic Modeler plug-in
Arturia CS-80 soft synth
Digidesign DVerb, Lo-Fi, SoundReplacer plug-ins
IK Multimedia AmpliTube plug-in
Line 6 Amp Farm plug-in
Waves C4 Multiband Parametric Processor, Renaissance DeEsser plug-ins
Synths, modules, drum machines, instruments:
Alesis Andromeda, Ion synths
Elka Synthex synth
Fender Musicman bass, Rhodes Mark II 88-key suitcase piano, Stratocaster guitar, Twin (black knob) guitar amp
Moog Minimoog, Memorymoog synths
Oberheim OB-X synth
OSC Oscar monosynth
Roland Jupiter-8 synth, XV-5080 synth module
Sequential Circuits DrumTraks drum machine, Pro-One monosynth, Prophet-5 synth
Steinway grand piano
Wurlitzer electric piano
Yamaha Motif 6, Motif 8 synths
Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects:
AKG C 12 mic
dbx 160A compressor/limiter
Digidesign Pre preamp
D.W. Fearn mic preamp
Eventide H3000 Ultra-Harmonizer effects processor
Focusrite Liquid Channel channel strip
Line 6 FM4 Filter/Synth Modeler effects unit
Manley Voxbox channel strip/voice processor
Shure SM58 mic
TC Electronic TC 2290 Dynamic Digital
Delay TC-Helicon VoiceWorks voice processor