KING of Composition

DJ Icey puts the work ethic of most people to shame. He has long been regarded as the King of Breaks and for good reason: Not only is Icey a purveyor
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DJ Icey puts the work ethic of most people to shame. He has long been regarded as the “King of Breaks” and for good reason: Not only is Icey a purveyor of breaks, house and funk music, but he's also been living and breathing it since the early '90s.

The Orlando, Fla.-based DJ got his start spinning acid house and breaks, soon hooking up with a residency at Orlando's now-defunct The Edge. It was there in 1993 that Icey invited Chemical Brothers to perform their first U.S. show. Not one to sit around and wait for a record deal to fall in his lap, Icey then founded his own label, Zone Records. It was through Zone that he began his studio-obsessed feat of producing more than 200 12-inches.

The UK's Pete Tong heard one of Icey's productions and signed him to his FFRR label in '97. Icey was the first American DJ signed to the label and the first to be chosen to record an album for the Essential Mix (Sire) series. Among remixing projects (including Deee-Lite, Groove Armada, Paul van Dyk), 12-inch singles, mix CDs — The Funky Breaks (FFRR, 1997), Mixed (Zone, 2000), Essential Elements (Sire, 2001) — and more than 125 DJ gigs per year, Icey has scant time to work on full-length artist albums. But Different Day (Zone/System, 2003), Icey's follow up to the 1998 release Generate (FFRR), is no slap-dash effort. Although certain tracks (“A Little Louder”) harken back to old-school dance and funk sounds traversed many times since the '80s, most take on a more modern tack, and the arrangements are intricately planned yet uncluttered.

Hey, Mr. DJ

Despite his career longevity and demand, Icey had humble beginnings. “When I first started DJing,” Icey says, “a club DJ lived next door, and he gave me Depeche Mode's ‘Strange Love’ and Nitzer Ebb's ‘Join in the Chant.’ I learned mixing with those two records!” From trial by fire, Icey figured out a method he was comfortable with. “You have to realize that everything is in eight-bar pieces, so there is some math involved for proper phrasing in mixing,” he says. “My DJ sets usually range in the 132 to 138 bpm range.”

Now, after years of DJing several nights a week, there isn't much left for Icey to do to perfect his sets. His biggest roadblock is space. “I like to shake my ass a bit when I'm spinning,” he says. “I love DJing and like to move around behind the decks. As I'm on the road, I am always playing in a different booth or stage setup, so I first have to see how much I can move without making the record skip if things are shaky.”

Icey's arsenal comprises vinyl and dub plates, but he's open-minded to how DJing has evolved in recent years. “I don't bring any CDs with me,” he says. “However, this past year, I have seen more DJs using CDs, and I've seen a lot of interest in [Stanton] Final Scratch, as well, although I haven't messed with it yet.” As for the dub plates that Icey carries, he doesn't test them out to fine-tune his mix, but to gauge the overall reception of the song: Will the crowd dance, or will everyone clear the floor and head to the bar? “I usually cut plates when I feel I am done with the tune,” Icey says. “It is a great tool for my vinyl labels to see if songs work on the floor, and it is a great feeling to finish a song and get an immediate response to it.”

STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH YOU

When working on a track, producers often start with the obvious beginning point: the intro. But when Icey starts a new track, he doesn't always start at point A — it could be a particular moving bass line or some other sound or melody that gets him going. “Sometimes, I will make a breakdown or middle section of a tune and work backward from it,” he says.

Although Icey is working on fewer remixes these days, he reconstructs other artists' tracks in a similar way to how he works on his own productions. With his last remix, Paul van Dyk's “We are Alive,” Icey opted not to start with the typical beginning point: the beat. “With that tune, there was a vocal bit that I time-stretched in the Roland VP to the tempo I was working at,” he says. “I figured out the key of the song, and then I started trying to groove on a bass line. I played a riff I liked and then built the drums around it. I like to jam on bits. I will loop an eight-bar segment and just jam, playing different keyboards until things click, and then I'll record it.”

One thing about self-produced music is, when it leaves the artist's hands (to be mastered and manufactured), he or she often feels angst that certain parts could have been recorded or tweaked better. For Icey, it is no different. “When I'm done with a track,” he says, “I always hear something that could have been changed: this sound panned here, this bit with a little more EQ on it, et cetera.” But Icey took what he learned from recording Generate and his many singles and applied it to Different Day. “I would burn a finished track and play it in my car,” he says. “I have a stock Bose stereo in it, and if I can get a track to sound great in my car, I am usually happy with it. But on this album, I tried to pay a lot of attention to compression on the bottom end and panning things out to get a nice stereo sound.”

THE TWIDDLING BEGINS

People play favorites when it comes to music equipment because of varying tastes and methods. Icey's favorites include a mix of new and old. For sequencing parts together, Icey alternates between two different setups. “I sometimes sequence in Digital Performer 5.02 on an ancient Mac Quadra 650 and mixdown on an old 32-channel Tascam board, or I use the very basic sequencer in Pro Tools with the Digi 001 on a G4.” As for plug-ins and keyboards, Icey isn't afraid to divulge his secret weapons. “In the Pro Tools system, a time-stretching plug-in called Speed, by Wave Mechanics, is a great tool,” he says. “And as far as sounds, my Access Virus b is a favorite, along with a Yamaha AN1x that I have spent a lot of time tweaking bass sounds in. You can pick up an AN1x fairly cheap nowadays, and it is a completely different beast than the thin-sounding CS series. You can download some great sounds off the Internet for the AN1x as a better starting point, completely replace all of the banks and take your time editing and saving patches — I am a knob twiddler.”

With years of experience producing his own music, Icey has had his share of frustrations in the studio. But he's managed to solve a few of those recording riddles, one of which being how he shapes bass parts. “For years, I was always fighting with compression on bass sounds,” he says. “I always run my bass mono. I want a tight bass, so I start at a ratio of 6 to 1 with a fast attack and kinda play with it from there. I find that compression ratio is a good starting point. And sometimes, I will boost between 40 Hz to 70 Hz for some extra punch.”

Another bass and EQ tip comes from the primarily instrumental “Freaks in the House” on Different Day. A robotic bass synth stays a steady course while squelchy acid-house parts, heavily reverbed pads, ultradistorted noise (processed from bass notes) and a few spoken lines from Mystro peek in and out of the mix. “I wrote that song with Christian ‘Mystro’ Ledford, whom I own my studio with,” Icey says. “When I'm not working, he records reggae and soca bands in the studio. He did this vocal on there, and we worked on the EQ. I wanted something like a Prince sound from the intro of ‘Let's Go Crazy,’ and I wanted his vocal to sound more like it was a sample. Then, we took turns processing the distorted bass line that comes in. We used Boss SE-70 and Boss VF-1 effects boxes. The VF-1 is sold in the guitar department of music stores but is sick to run keyboards through.”

DIGGING IN

Icey doesn't sample many of the synths you hear on Different Day, preferring to play them from sound modules and keyboards. A case in point is the pulsating sawtooth keyboard a few minutes into the album's title track. “That pulsing riff comes from a Syntecno TeeBee sound module [treated with a phase effect] that I bought from a guy who handmade them in the Netherlands,” he says. “It was designed to be a 303 emulator. It has an 18dB filter in it, which I believe was also in the Roland TB-303. It's a fat mono synth that can give you that acid sound but also much more. The guy has ceased production on it, but it's definitely a great box.”

Deeper into the album, the ultra-acidy instrumental “The Future” sounds as though about 5 million synths were layered together for one of the track's main parts, which is not the case. “Actually, the huge pads are off of the Waldorf Q,” he says. “That keyboard is the widest, fattest keyboard I have. The oscillators are slightly detuned, so it sounds wider on that pad. The other main riff of the song came off a Roland Juno-1 and is compressed hard. Nothing was really layered except a sub sound with some of the tweaked bass sounds.”

Meanwhile, one of the album's most radio- and club-friendly tracks, “Searching,” was borne from the Virus b. “With ‘Searching,’ I was vibing with some drums and that bell-sounding riff, which I tweaked off the Virus b,” Icey says. “I just kept jamming, and it all came together in a couple of days. I wanted something really vibey for that song. The bass line is way in the background on it because I wanted the keyboard lines to do the talking. I sat down and wrote the words, and the talented Melanie Rev sounded so sweet on it.”

Icey gets such a variety of synth sounds in the studio, ranging from gritty and hard in “Dreams” to the aforementioned bell-sounding riff in “Searching.” But the amount of messing with presets is different from synth to synth. “Sometimes, I tweak until I lose the sound completely, and then I just wish I had the preset back,” Icey says. “The Waldorf Q is a great keyboard, but you do have to sit there and tweak sounds on it, whereas the Virus is ready to go. It's a snap to change the filters and tweak the presets to something you like. The time I spend tweaking depends on the keyboard, but you can get a sick sound out of the Virus quick!”

ICED WITH GEAR

Access Virus b keyboard
Alesis NanoBass sound module
Apple Mac Quadra 650
Apple Mac G4
Digidesign Pro Tools Digi 001
E-mu Orbit sound module
MOTU Digital Performer 5.02
Ortofon cartridges
Pioneer DJM-600 mixer
Roland S770 sampler
Roland Juno-1 keyboard
Shure Whitelabel cartridges
Syntecno TeeBee sound module
Tascam 32-channel console
Technics 1200MK3 turntables
Yamaha AN1x keyboard
Yamaha CS1x controller keyboard
Waldorf Q keyboard