“I probably disagree with every point of view I had about ten years ago,” says Los Angeles-based DJ/producer Morgan Page. “I think I''ve broken all of my rules.”
Not that it''s a bad thing to change your artistic views and let go of stubborn, preconceived notions: Given his Grammy nominations, Billboard Dance/Club Play Songs chart honors, and his discography of 200-plus remixes (including Coldplay, Katy Perry, and Madonna), it''s served Page well to be open-minded to transformation.
Recently, he reworked his production workflow. Page used to look down on creating Pro Tools templates, but he''s since changed his mind. “I thought it was cheesy to have structure, and now it''s crucial; it''s absolutely essential to the process,” he says. “I have markers in [my templates] for verses, choruses, turnarounds, and bridges. And you can move those around depending on what the song calls for, but by having a starting point, you can make it that much quicker, and that''s the only way I''ve been able to do a draft-a-day process.”
With his streamlined methodology, Page flies through creative ideas. For In the Air, his third solo album on Nettwerk (due in February), he was able to come up with 80 or 90 draft ideas and then whittle them down to 18 full songs with lyrics.
But it wasn''t Page''s intention to use templates in order to crank out tracks as if through a cookie-cutter song factory. Rather, he wanted to avoid technical distractions, so that he could get to his best ideas. “The next stage is [making] a patchbay and patching in guitar pedals into compressors and things,” he says. “I don''t want to run around changing 9-volt batteries in guitar pedals and lose that creative process. I always tell people: It''s important that you don''t go back and forth between left brain and right brain with all of this stuff. You want to get in your creative mode and get into a workflow that makes sense, not sit behind all your gear going, ‘Aw, man! What channel''s this going into? Why is there this ground hum?'' You can just continue to tinker around like that for days . . . and years.”
Earlier this year, Page built a studio in the two-car garage of his new house, and he hired an acoustic consultant to tune the room. Other improvements included scaling back on his gear lust. Aside from Pro Tools (he was using a Digi 002 for years, but he''s since moved to HD Native), his go-to gear and software include a Dave Smith Prophet 08 keyboard, Waves Maserati and SSL Channel plug-in bundles, an M-Audio Sputnik mic, Prism Sound Orpheus interface, and Dangerous Music 2-Bus and D-Box analog summing units.
But there are a few Craigslist finds that he''s kept, too. “My favorite is the Alesis 3630, which is the Daft Punk compressor,” Page says. “It''s like $60 on Craigslist, so I went out and got four of those and a power strip. The rack enclosure cost more than the compressors. So it''s just funny: For the price of a plug-in, I have these amazing-sounding, really dirty compressors that I use for parallel compression. The 3630 basically sends stuff out and then sends it back in through the Pro Tools converters. It really compresses stuff hard and raises the level of the compressed version of background vocals or guitars—just adding a little bite in controlled doses.”
By limiting his gear and improving his workflow, Page was able to concentrate on production techniques that would benefit the songs. For “In the Air,” Page teamed up with BT, who shares his love for contrasting organic and electronic elements and added organic timpani and dulcimer parts to the pulsating synthetic sounds. Then Page blended everything seamlessly. “In the mix, it''s just really highpass and lowpass filtering,” he says. “So maybe I''ll highpass the acoustic elements, where I want just the high transients, and I''ll lowpass the keyboards where I don''t need a lot of high end. To me, it''s about casting the right instruments that blend well with the vocal, and the vocal is the top priority.”
The vocal in the case of “In the Air” features Angela McCluskey (of Télépopmusik fame), who has a very distinctive voice. “That was a long process, very difficult and very interesting ''cause with a voice like that, it''s so distinctive that you can''t really stack it,” Page says. “We tried doing layers, and it just sounded crowded. Because she has a lot of breaths and a lot of rasp, she takes up a lot of the frequency spectrum, so it just sounded better to have one voice in there.”
One solution was to beef up the character of her vocal with Waves Vocal Rider. “It''s kind of like what a compressor can do, but it does it a little more transparently,” Page says. “I bussed the instrumental to this plug-in, and it would ride her vocal relative to what was happening in the mix. It brought up the vocal presence and really interesting nuances in it.”
Page worked remotely with Tegan and Sara for “Video” and “Body Work,” sending them six instrumental drafts to choose from. The twin sisters sang on three, and Page chose two for the album. Like McCluskey, Tegan and Sara''s voices were challenging in terms of mixing. “It took a lot of processing because they have a very different kind of voice than I typically work with,” he says. “Both are shrill, so I wanted to soften it up but make sure it punched through the mix. I had some Waves JJP Pultec emulation that I put on there. It''s basically like a Fairchild with character, and some vintage EQ worked well for their voices to thicken them up so that they weren''t too thin.”
Testing tracks on the road, Page saw what got the crowd worked up, and made adjustments. “In the Air” went through five or six different versions. “I was just like, ‘Ah, this isn''t sitting right; the kick drum isn''t big enough.'' It took a lot of different variations to find the one that suits the song well and works on the dance floor. The kick needed some leveling and a little more grit. Also, I wanted to make sure that things weren''t competing with the kick in that central channel, so I had to make a wider snare and a wider clap.”
To add depth to the rhythm sounds, Page generated a layer of white or pink noise—on a separate track—using Pro Tools'' stock Signal Generator plug-in. He then opened the noise on the rhythm hit by using volume automation or by keying a gate. “Because it''s random with white and pink noise, and pink noise has a bit of low end to it, I''ll do a highpass filter to cut above 300Hz, and I draw in the envelope in Pro Tools. Essentially what the noise is doing is, because it''s panning randomly and it''s random frequencies, it feels wide because it''s randomly jumping around the spectrum and the frequencies.”
Although Page does a lot of the mixing himself, he got help on a couple tracks from Phil Tan (Rihanna), who helped get the vocals to sit just right. And then, even in the mastering phase, Page remained engaged in the process. “It''s shocking what [engineers] can do at mastering when it''s done right. But on that same note with non-album stuff, with remixes and things, I''m shocked at how bad the mastering can be. Sometimes I hear my test master, and I hear the masters provided, and I''m like, ‘Wow, how did they make this worse?''”