One of 2004's most vividly packaged hip-hop albums featured the silhouettes of intertwined lovers against a picturesque suburban sunset, with the word Connected printed above it. The baroque boom-bap production of The Foreign Exchange's Connected (BBE) owes to a classically trained musician named Nicolay, who until recently was Netherlands-based. He sent his synth string — rimmed beats in compressed files to Foreign Exchange member Phonte (also of North Carolina's Little Brother) for Connected's vocal parts. What's more remarkable than this intercontinental album production? Nicolay has never owned a set of studio monitor speakers. He even listened to playback of this year's Here (BBE, 2006), his stylish solo debut album, through the set of three-inch computer speakers that millions of Dockers-clad desk-bound twits have in their office cubicles.
“I have to this day not ever used decent studio monitors,” Nicolay confesses. “The first bunch of tracks I mixed down, I did on some Altec Lansing speakers that came with the IBM computer that I was using at the time. The Connected album I tracked and mixed down on a Kenwood minisystem, and I currently use a Philips minisystem. [But] I do want to get some actual monitors sometime soon.”
Here's sessions involved some puny speakers, but Nicolay's work on the album boasts concert hall — size girth, featuring agile MCs and solid instrumentals. Recorded during the fall and winter months of 2005, Here's twinkling British pop-sounding nuggets (“Let It Shine for Me”) and momentous hip-hop tumblers (“The End Is Near”) showcase Nicolay's diverse song-writing strengths and love for hip-hop.
Nicolay built Here's smoky backdrops in his Netherlands home studio using Pro Tools, his beloved Roland Juno-60 synth, guitars and Yamaha Motifs 6 and 7 in a likable blend of live and sampled textures. Though he leaned more toward rock than ever before, each beat on Here maintains the evident jazzy influence of A Tribe Called Quest production team The Ummah, composed of Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Q-Tip and Jay Dee (one of the hands pictured on Here's cover coincidentally belongs to Muhammad).
“I hardly ever use loops or breakbeats,” Nicolay says. He calls himself a “wanna-be drummer,” but not in the way that a local bar band harbors an imbecilic Neil Peart devotee; Nicolay testifies that nothing experimental could come out of him behind the set.
“I always program sounds individually because it allows for more control and gives me more room to branch out and add breaks and variations. When I program breaks, I program them like a drummer would be able to play them. That's also the reason that I will generally have cymbals in my tracks. ‘What It Used to Be’ (featuring Wiz Khalifa) originally had only the basic boom-bappish drums in there, but I felt like something was missing. I added the tom fills in the breakdowns and some live-sounding hi-hat, crash and china cymbals, and it worked a lot better. I love trying to get that live-sounding drum sound that still bangs hard. I always use a lot of compression and filtering on the drums to make them beefy.”
Nicolay's enthusiasm for live-sounding tracks doesn't stop at the beats. He'll occasionally put something together on guitar, as he did for Here's “Give Her Everything,” which features vocals from New Yorker Graham Sears Tracey amid an ambient stew of background ghosts (via the Yamaha Motif) and delay effects.
“Everything goes into the compressor first,” Nicolay says of the track's vocal. “Then, there's the reverb on the vocals, which is a backwards reverb. I first heard that specific effect on a Prince demo called ‘We Can Funk,’ which was very different from what was eventually released on his Graffiti Bridge, and I was sold. Basically, what you do is reverse the track that you want to apply the effect to — in this case the vocals — and you process that track with a reverb effect with a fair amount of room and reflection, but leave the dry sound in there, too. After that, you reverse the track back. The result is that really haunting type of sound. To top it all off, there's a delay/distortion effect on the vocals that I did using the [Prosoniq] NorthPole plug-in.”
And when all of the pristine pieces are laid overtop his cymbal-heavy breaks, and it's time for mixdown to go down, Nicolay just sits back and listens — on three-inch computer speakers.