Twenty-five miles north of Chicago is a sleepy little suburb called Northbrook. The town may be small, but it boasts some big claims to fame — some more infamous than illustrious. Glenbrook North High School made national headlines this past year when a powder-puff football game turned into the ultimate catfight. The same high school churned out some other notable alums, including Steve Bartman, the overzealous fan who lost game 6 for the Cubs during last season's pennant race, and director John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles), who was so proud of his alma mater that he filmedFerris Bueller's Day Offat the campus.
Ryan Raddon was also a Glenbrook North Spartan, though he always had a stronger affinity for music than football. For him, Northbrook was just home, a place that conveniently situated him within driving distance of the birth of house (music, that is). In the past 20 years, Raddon has gone from choirboy to clubber to serious DJ and producer, and, today, he is the driving force behind Kaskade. Although In the Moment (Om, 2004) is only the second artist album for Kaskade, Raddon has already proved that he can ride the line between the jacking beats of his Chicago roots and the pitched-down sound of San Francisco, his adopted home. Call it divine intervention: Somehow, this modest Mormon just keeps landing in the right place at the right time.
In the mid-'80s, when the rest of teenage America was saving up for Debbie Gibson tapes, Raddon was catching rides to downtown Chicago to hear DJs spin sets that mashed together everything from The Cure to Kraftwerk. Raddon started buying records simply to preserve the memories of those nights, and by the time he graduated from high school, he already had a crate full of future classics, like Marshall Jefferson's “Move Your Body” and Ralphi Rosario's “You Used to Hold Me.”
“I wasn't trying to be a DJ,” he says. “I bought records because that was what everyone bought. It was the only format back then. I shopped at Gramaphone because that's where you bought house music. When you're young, you think that's how it is everywhere. I just assumed that other cities had mix shows on the radio and that it was happening all over the world, but that wasn't the case. It wasn't until I left Chicago that I realized, ‘Whoa, the whole world doesn't listen to house music on Friday and Saturday nights?’ I went to Utah for college, and I couldn't have gone to a more musically desolate place. There was nothing happening, and I realized that if I really loved the music and wanted a house night, I had to DJ it and promote it and make it happen myself because no one else was going to.”
Proving that dance music could find its footing even in conservative surroundings, Raddon launched Salt Lake City's first club night. The weekly parties were so successful that Raddon paid off his tuition and used the leftover profits to buy his first piece of studio gear: a Roland TR-808. “It was the first time I had some money to myself,” he explains. “I had the sound system at the club and my turntables, so the natural next thing to buy was a drum machine. Then I bought a sampler, then a 303. I just started experimenting, and it built from there.”
Through his own Mechanized imprint, Raddon started releasing his early forays into production. One song in particular caught the ears of a then-fledgling deep-house label in San Francisco. Om Records bought “Primate Exhibit” for use on its Environments (2001) compilation, kicking off what would become a long-standing professional relationship between Raddon and Om.
A KASKADE OF EVENTS
In 2000, another geographical change impacted Raddon's music. He and his wife moved to San Francisco, where Raddon got a job in A&R for Om Records. At the time, artists like Miguel Migs and Soulstice were purveying a slower, more seductive form of house, creating a lush musical landscape that inspired Raddon just as much as Chicago had. “I was definitely influenced by what was going on in San Francisco,” he says. “It was hard not to be. Up to that point, I was chopping up old records and finding freaky noises, just me and my Akai sampler. I got out here and realized, ‘Wow, it can be way more musical, and people will still get down to it.’ San Francisco gave me the confidence to write songs with some content that weren't just about four-on-the-floor and drum programming.”
Aspiring to that sound, Raddon created the Kaskade name and began approaching music production differently. Instead of relying on other records and drum machines for sounds, he surrounded himself with talented musicians and vocalists, letting the vibe take them where it would. His new method clicked, and in 2001, he went from A&R exec to recording artist when Om released the first Kaskade single, “What I Say.”
“Kaskade was never really about me,” Raddon insists. “It was a DJ/producer project, but I never really intended to do more than a couple of 12-inches.” But after the release of that first single, the buzz was too loud to ignore. Kaskade's debut artist album, It's You, It's Me (Om), was released in 2003, cementing Raddon's position in dance music.
“It was a trip when the first person called Om and asked to book Kaskade,” Raddon explains. “I never anticipated that. I was like, ‘There is no Kaskade. Kaskade is a figment of my imagination. I made Kaskade up.’ Really and truly, the music is a reflection of the talent of the writers, the vocalists, the players and everyone who participates. It's cool that I can go out and DJ as Kaskade and that people are digging the music, but to get the entire vision, it would have to be 15 or 20 people onstage playing their stuff live.”
Although a Kaskade live show is still only an idea, Raddon unquestionably captures that live atmosphere on the new album, In the Moment. Splitting his time between two studios — one in San Francisco and a second in Salt Lake City — Raddon worked closely with songwriter Fin Bjarnson to create an album that varies between the ethereal dreaminess of “Maybe” and the uptempo bounce of “Move.”
Raddon views songwriting as a constant progression of ideas. “A lot of producers start with rhythm tracks or a really cool sample,” he explains. “But I think the best stuff that I've put out came from a strong melody and a strong song idea. Half the time, it's me sitting down at the Rhodes and trying stuff out, or Fin will play an acoustic guitar into Pro Tools, and we'll cut it up and experiment. It starts as a little seed and just grows from there, especially when I bring in other musicians. Sometimes, it goes in a different direction than you expected, but that's wonderful. It's important to let your ideas loose and just see where they take you.”
Using this approach has resulted in some of the album's finest, if unexpected, moments. The album's final track, “Let You Go,” features a single, pure trumpet alongside a pulling duet between vocalist Rob Wannamaker and a singer who just goes by the name Amanda. “That song is a perfect example,” Raddon says. “It started with the melody, and then the lyrics were written. The trumpet was actually almost an afterthought. We brought in Nathan Botts — a Juilliard graduate, this amazing trumpet player — and that was the result. The horn on that track gets me every time. What a blessing.”
Nearly every Kaskade song also features vocals, whether it's Colette's lounge-ready lyrics in “I Like the Way” or the spoken falsetto in “Yeah Right.” Although most keyboards go through the Avalon U5 preamp/DI, vocals are typically sung into a Blue Dragonfly microphone and then tracked into the Manley VoxBox — though Raddon won't discount the value of occasionally renting out a studio with a more elaborate setup. “You get what you pay for,” Raddon says. “I think better mics and preamps really help. There are no shortcuts, you know? That's what people don't understand. You can hear a difference. That's why a couple of the vocals were recorded in a big, proper room that had some Neve pre stuff. Like, for ‘Sweet Love,’ I just A/B'd a couple different mics and then tried a couple different pres. I found which combo was the sweetest thing for my ears; Joslyn sang it; and that was that.”
Although he won't compromise on vocal recording, Raddon staunchly supports software-driven production, so much so that he could easily be Digidesign Pro Tools' next celebrity endorser. “The crutch, the main thing that I have to have, the environment that I create in that everything centers around, is Pro Tools,” he says. “I start and finish everything in Pro Tools. There's the rare occasion when I'll use Reason to come up with some ideas because it's quick and dirty, but Pro Tools is the main gig. If you're working with a lot of live musicians, which I am, it just makes the most sense. I tried Cubase and Logic over the years, but I always went back to Pro Tools. Coming from a DJ background, the interface just makes the most sense to me. I really like just having the one window right in front of me: Here's my kick. Here's my snare. It's all mapped out.”
Beyond sequencing, Raddon employs Pro Tools for other purposes. “It works as a nice recording and arranging tool, but it's also very versatile as a sound-design tool,” he explains. “I'll combine and sample from all different sources and different formats. For example, if I can combine three different kicks, maybe it'll make the kick that I think is just right. I'll take three or four of my favorite kicks off a record and mash them together — the low end off this one and the bite off the top of that one — and I'll end up with something unique.”
The album's first single, “Steppin' Out,” exemplifies this process. “I thought to myself, ‘What would it sound like if you made a rock 'n' roll house song?’” Raddon explains. “I wanted to push the whole dirty vibe of rock and keep the drums really full, so they just got stacked a lot more. It was like, ‘How many different hi-hats do I need to cut up to make this just sound really thick?’ I just kept layering and layering to get that feel, and with Pro Tools, after that, I was able to say, ‘What happens if I cut out this little bit or slice out this part?’ It can be a process of elimination to ultimately make it sound more sporadic. Of course, the finished product isn't anything like rock-house. I started with that idea and it ended up more like folk-house or something, but it works.”
CALLING FOR BACKUP
His music may not sound like rock, but Raddon borrows a technique from the rock world for every song, handing over his recordings to a mix engineer as the final step. “It still totally freaks people out in dance music,” he explains. “I did a remix for an R&B band about five years ago. I finished the remix and was really happy with how it sounded, so I gave it to them, and they're like, ‘Cool, we'll have our mix engineer just dial it in. Come in tomorrow; just bring the Pro Tools session, and that's where he'll mix in.’ I totally didn't understand. I was like, ‘Mix engineer? No, man, I'm the mix engineer.’ They explained that this is how it goes in the rock 'n' roll world, the band world and outside of dance music. You have somebody else mix your music. You've been listening to it endlessly, and you gotta give your ears a break and have someone else to wrap their head around it. I fought it at first because I just wasn't into the whole idea. I was like, ‘Nah, I'll mix it. I can make it sound good.’ And then I saw what a professional mix engineer can do. He gave me the song back, and it sounded so much better; I couldn't believe it. I realized these guys spend their whole lives making songs sound good and understanding the dimensions and the different sonics and how they can fit. It just made so much more sense.”
Despite relinquishing that final mix, Raddon insists that the music is still fundamentally his. “The song never changes that much; it just sounds better sonically,” he explains. “It's got a bigger sound, like butter on your ear. Maybe he adds a reverb on something that I didn't but nothing to the point where I'm like, ‘Oh, man, this isn't my song. What are you doing?’ And even if there is, I'll call them up and say, ‘Yo, can you back the 'verb off on this hat,’ or, ‘This is too wet.’ And the next day, something new gets posted to me. When I give them a mix, it's a bit one-dimensional, and when I get it back, it's very multidimensional. I think that's something mix engineers develop over a career. I've got good relationships with a few different engineers that I'm stoked with, and I'm really happy with the way my stuff sounds. I think it's one of the things that gets overlooked in dance music. People come up to me all the time saying, ‘Wow, your production's so clean. Are you on a Neve board?’ and I'm like, ‘No, baby, it's in the box. It's in the computer. This is all Pro Tools. It's just that I have a second set of ears listening to it and mixing it down.”
The only other bit of help Raddon needed when it came to his music was finding a place for all of his gear. The equipment was piling up so much, it was starting to squeeze out the possibility of having a living room for his family. Fortunately, technology has been getting faster and smaller. “When I first started, I was buying studio gear for thousands and thousands of dollars, and I could never have done what you can do now with a laptop and a couple of programs. When I moved out to San Francisco, I was like, ‘Where in the hell am I gonna put all this stuff?’ I was sequencing on an old Mac and had all this gear — 808, 909, 303, my Akai MPC, a big 32-channel board, another Akai 2/3000. My wife was freaking out, and I'm thinking, ‘Sorry, we're not gonna have a front room.’ But that was when I first started dabbling with soft synths and more computer-based hard-disk recording. It was hard, but I started getting rid of my gear. I'd love to own the original stuff, of course. It's the real deal; it's got the knobs; you can twist it — I get that. The purists are always pissed about that, and I'm like, ‘Relax. If I had all the money in the world, I'd have a big room with all the old stuff, too.’ For me, it's a lot more logical to have the soft stuff. I do lust after the hardware, but I usually buy the software because it's just so much more convenient, and you get a great sound out of it. Yeah, it's not the real thing, but you know what? It's sounds pretty dang good, and pretty dang good is good enough for me right now.”