RONI SIZE—STRATEGIC ALLIANCE

Roni Size is run ragged. He's at home in Bristol, England, on a one-day break from his two-week-plus schedule of live gigs. The tour is in support of
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Roni Size is run ragged. He's at home in Bristol, England, on a one-day break from his two-week-plus schedule of live gigs. The tour is in support of Size's latest full-length, Return to V (V, 2004); Dynamite MC's album, World of Dynamite (Strong, 2004); and MC Tali's record, Lyric on My Lip (Full Cycle, 2003). Even more extensive than what Size did with Reprazent, these live shows feature Dynamite and Tali as well as Sweet Pea, Hollie G. and Zaniah, drummer Yuval Gabay (formerly of Soul Coughing), bassist Simon John (Reprazent), D Product and Size himself. On his one day off, the ailing Size must try to strengthen his immune system while running all of his home-related errands. But his mind is on the shows.

“We have mastered the art of performing live,” he states happily. “I can now go and make a jungle tune, and I know how to make it live. And I know how to make a live tune and make it jungle. We can tear the place down.”

In 1997, Roni Size and Reprazent did just that with their potent interpretation of Size's award-winning album New Forms (Talkin' Loud/Mercury, 1997). Combining main components of the album along with two vibrant vocalists, the music was taken into a realm that hadn't been attempted before — or since, really.

“As soon as you start to separate live and the studio, that is when you're in trouble,” says Size, who is set up at Channel House Studios in Bristol. There, Size, Krust and Clipz — along with Size's brother, Karl Williams — each have a room and share one community live room. “When we finish a tune in the studio, we take it to the [live] room. Or bit by bit, even before we finish the tune, we take it to the live room, so they both finish at the same time,” Size explains. “We're always set up live all the time, and the studio's always set up. They haven't got the same equipment, so if I'm making a tune in the live room and it sounds wicked, I'll take it into the studio. It's just band methodology, innit?”

MARCHING TWO BY TWO

In the case of Return to V, the “band” has roughly 22 members — that is, if you count each of the 18 featured vocalists. Although Size is known for having marquee names guest on his music (Zack de la Rocha, Method Man, Rahzel, Bahamadia), that wasn't the idea behind V. Created during a period of roughly six years, the album is a collection of individually recorded tracks without a long-term vision. It all began with “Out of Breath” (featuring Rahzel) — which Size recorded while working on the second Reprazent album, In the Mode (Talkin' Loud/Island Def Jam, 2000) — and ended most recently with “Problems” (featuring Blaze). What brought these particular tunes together is a common bond in what the singers were talking about. Songs such as “No Trouble” (Rodney P), “No More” (Beverly Knight and Dynamite MC), “Sing” (Jocelyn Brown) and the aforementioned “Problems” are putting across a subtle message of awareness.

“It wasn't until I gathered 14 or 15 of the tracks that I realized I've got two records here: one predominantly vocal, one predominantly dancefloor,” Size says. “This record sounds like my history, my Noah's ark, two of everything: two from my past, two from my future. This record is where I used to come from and where I'm at now.”

Despite Size's renowned abilities in the studio, V is less about the gear and more about the one-on-one relationship with each vocalist. From Sweet Pea — whose first experience in the studio is the album opener, “Bump 'n' Grind” — to Knight, who has been in the studio more times than Size, to Brown, who gave him something that he's not sure he would have been able to deal with if he had been physically present during the recording. “I was so glad I wasn't there, because I would have probably shat myself,” Size says. “She gave me back 100 different vocals layered up. That is real. I wouldn't have known what to do with it. I was just so happy to get back all the vocals, all mixed and everything; all I had to do was mix the track.”

His common chain for vocal recording is a Neumann U 47 microphone, a Focusrite Red 7 compressor and a Focusrite Red 2 EQ. More recently, he added Apogee Rosetta digital converters to brighten and deepen the sound. Size's idea was to record in the most direct and clean route into Digidesign Pro Tools, then through the stereo channel on the MTA desk.

“What I would put over the top would be my 3-band Tube-Tech compressor for male vocals, boosted to 4k,” he adds. “Or I would use my Amek Pure Path Channel Strip for female vocals, boosted to 8k. These are the most predominant frequencies in a vocal, which sustain to the natural ear. With some vocals, I would resample and add filters and LFOs just to make everything sit better. On ‘Cheeky Monkey,’ where I've used Tali and Dynamite, I did resampling to get the right dubby effect. I always filter the bottom end of the vocal out, taking away a lot of the frequencies to get my sound. Some people call it telephone or radio. I do it for the dub effect.”

THE LIBRARY

Size's approach is rarely, “Today, I'm going to make a record.” Instead, it veers toward a bunch of ideas put together with sounds added to them. Taking what he has gathered in his hard drive — a “labyrinth,” as he calls it — he can draw from recorded live musicians or from records. Buying bags and bags of music (R&B, hip-hop, dub, reggae, orchestral, rock) from shops around the world, Size brings it all back to Bristol and gives it to D Product, who uploads everything into the computer. A lot of the time, Size will not have even listened to the records, only finding sounds when he's sifting through the library, looking for something in particular.

“You know back in the day when people used to go breakbeat hunting — digging in the crates, running around New York?” Size asks. “Now, I just sit in front of my computer, and it's the same thing. I'll go into my labyrinth, take a load of stuff into Pro Tools and separate it out. I re-EQ it using Bomb Factory plug-ins, compress it with the [Universal Audio] Fairchild [670 plug-in], add reverbs and really treat the sounds. Using Pro Tools as a palette, if I've got a whole section of guitars, I'll put the guitars on whatever loop I want — say, 175 bpm — making sure everything I've got fits into that bpm and the half time. I would time-stretch everything exactly to the right bpm. Then, I would treat it through the desk with Neve EQs and treat it again with the Eventide [Eclipse effects processor], reverb and pitch shifter, getting it to sound as big as I can through 24 bits of Apogee converter. Then, I would sample it or put it to a CD or DAT, and I'd resample everything just so I've got the quality of the desk, the plug-ins, everything.”

Once he chooses the sounds, Size takes 10 individual pieces and spreads them across the keyboard. He then adds a filter or a loop point onto each sound and changes the pitch until he's happy with the melody. To make it more unique, Size's signature method of tweaking involves filtering, reversing, pitching up or pitching down each piece to make it sound like it came from a synth module but manipulated in a sampler. He then adds more filters, time-variant amplitudes and time-variant filters and switches from lowpass to highpass filters for more depth. In addition, he changes loop points and adds new ones expressly to run into each other.

“My sampler is my module,” Size says. “Rather than loading in programs or sounds from other keyboards, I would take the sound and add it to my module. I make my own module. Starting from a bass drum, I'll distort it through an EQ back through a desk and back through the reverb unit. I'll put it into my sampler so it sounds dirty enough, filtering out as much of the frequencies that I need to be able to give it more musical presence or adding musical presence. That would be the formula.”

SELECTIVE FREQUENCIES

Certain sounds on V stand out: the bouncy bass on the Fallacy MC'd “The Streets,” the growls on “Out of Breath” and the whomps on “Fassyhole” (featuring Wilks). Elsewhere, the twisty strings — similar to the sounds on “No More” and “Pull Up,” featuring Vikter Duplaix — run through the melody on the Joe Roberts — vocalized and sassy “Want Your Body.” In many instances, the same bass sound is used on more than one track but processed differently. Drawing from the same strain helps create cohesion within the album.

“In one record, like ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ [featuring Die and Hollie G.], the bass sound is aggressive,” Size explains. “[For ‘The Streets,’] you start filtering the aggression away from it. [You] look for more musical points in the sound by putting it into the sampler and pacing it to filter points, then finding the frequencies where it starts to sing to you. There's a lot of filtering on ‘The Streets.’ That's my ear.”

The bass sound that shows up on both “Fassyhole” and “Out of Breath” is set at a very low frequency, another of Size's signatures. Using the Roland S-760 sampler, the bass goes forward and backward. Not sustaining on one note, this also gives it the movement within the record. “I always split my bass sounds,” Size says. “I have two channels. I'll take the top end on one, everything between 3k and 12k, and the bottom end in the other one, so there's nothing above 80 Hz. That means I've got this whole space in the middle for my drums to sit. It's nice and clear and not too cloudy.”

The final layer of treatment is really the key for Size. He uses a Neve EQ and reverbs on top to make it “sing better,” he says, and a dbx subharmonic harmonizer on the bottom for depth. These are the main differences between what Size was doing 10 years ago — with classic tracks like “It's Jazzy” — and his present-day material.

“In something like ‘On and On’ [featuring Stamina], I use a MacBeth module,” Size says. “It helps you to get this creative layer of string sounds. To give my strings more space, I'll put an Eventide [Eclipse], which we then put a pitch shift on, giving everything a new dynamic. It sounds like it's coming from the back of the speaker; that's the trick. You can have such a simple sound — like in ‘Want Your Body,’ that one Rhodes keyboard — but as soon as you put the Eventide onto it, it then becomes something else.”

Size is not remotely alone in his love for Pro Tools, but his biggest connection in the studio is with that software. Likening himself to a writer with a pen or a painter with a paintbrush, he says, “It does everything I want it to. It sounds as good as I want it to. I could do everything on my Pro Tools and my converters; no matter what you got, you put in the V converters, and it's going to sound amazing.” But there are certain sounds that he tends to draw from particular machines over and over. For fat bass, kick drums and drum sounds, it's the Korg Triton or the Oberheim DMX. For programming drums by feel rather than by sight, it's the Akai MPC2000. For really thick synths, it's the MacBeth or the Alesis Andromeda. For writing chords and the like, it's the Rhodes.

“I'm at that stage where if it's not broken, don't try to fix it,” Size says. “My music didn't sound too bad five years ago, so whatever I get now, it's not going to make it sound that much better. I've got more than what I need. Never get rid of anything. When kids come into the studio, we can say, ‘Have that; have that.’ We just pass it on to the next group of people. If we need it, we get it back. A lot of the stuff we felt we couldn't get rid of, we're now using in the live room.”

STAGING IN THE LIVE ROOM

The live setup is, in effect, a four-piece with Size and D Product handling the technical and John and Gabay handling the organic elements. Gabay's drum kit includes triggers to handle the breaks from each record. When the tracks are being mixed down in the studio, the guys separate the drums and put them onto a DAT or a CD. At rehearsal, they resample the breaks and line them up as drum-pad triggers. John uses a Triton for all of the strings and the high lines, making sure they are thickened onstage, and plays an upright bass for timeless numbers such as “Brown Paper Bag” and a Music Man stick bass for everything else.

D Product has different roles. For the Roni Size portion of the show, he handles the high lines and melodies. For the Tali portion, he manages the high lines and the main Rhodes samples with two different E-mu samplers, one for each show. Size drives all of the bass lines, which he samples into the S-760, pretreated, split across the keyboard for each song and controlled by a footpedal with a good sustain, which allows the bass to stay round and full. Additionally, he takes charge of the hooks, samples and intros.

“The next record I make will probably be 12 tracks of 100 percent live drum 'n' bass — everything live, nothing programmed, all performed,” Size says. “Everyone that's onstage is totally in tune with each other. I want to do what we tried to do with Reprazent, to do what bands do, which is get everyone in the same room for a month and record. Now, we've got the team of people ready to do that.”

While most individuals are looking at Size's previous work for answers, he never looks back. Remembering what he has done, he never listens to it, moving onto the next thing quicker than can be conceived to the outsider.

“There was a point in time where I felt maybe we were on the verge of making a difference,” Size reflects. “Now, I feel even if you do make a difference, no one's going to notice. The way you can access music is so fast. The way it is disposable is even faster. Before, we had to start from an 808 bass drum. We want it to sound like beowwwww. Or I want my breaks to move deh-deh-deh-deh. We programmed that shit for a long fucking time, weeks and months. We still do. People know how to do it now. There are no secrets. You can just go and get the beowwwww. All you have to do is tap a button, and there it is. You can buy a CD, and the deh-deh-deh-deh is there. Lifespan of music is so limited. That's the dangerous place music is at. Every time I go into a music shop and someone touches one of the presets, before you know it, it sounds like something you've been working on the last two weeks.”

TRY THIS STUDIO ON FOR SIZE

Computers, DAWs, recording hardware:

Alesis ADAT HD24 digital hard-disk recorders (2)
Apple Mac G4, G5 computers
Digidesign Pro Tools 5.1.3 software
Glyph FireWire Hot-Swap hard drive
HHB CDR800, CDR830 BurnIt, CDR850 BurnIt
CD recorders
Mackie HUI mixer
Magma PCI Expansion System w/Digidesign Pro Tools|24 Mix cards (7)

Consoles, mixers, interfaces:

Apogee Rosetta 800 converters (2)
Digidesign ADAT Bridge, 882|20 interfaces (2)
Glyph X-Project interface
MTA 924-series 48-channel console

Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixers:

Akai MPC2000XL sampler/workstation
E-mu E6400, SP-1200 samplers
Oberheim DMX drum machine
Pioneer CDJ-1000 DJ CD players (2)
Roland S-760 samplers (4)
Technics SL-1200 turntables (2)

Synths, modules, software, plug-ins, instruments:

Alesis Andromeda A6 synth
E-mu Orbit, Planet Phatt, Virtuoso 2000 sound modules
Fender Rhodes electric piano
Korg Triton synth
MacBeth M3X Sound Synthesizer
Roland JV-1080 sound module
Stanton FinalScratch digital-vinyl system

Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects:

Alan Smart C2 compressor
Amek Pure Path Channel in a Box (CIB) preamp/compressor/EQs (3), System 9098 EQ
AMS Neve 33114 EQs (8)
dbx 120x subharmonic synth
Drawmer 1960 mic pre/tube compressor, 1961 vacuum tube EQ, LX20 dual expander/compressor
Eventide Eclipse effects processor (2)
Focusrite Red 2 dual EQ, Red 7 preamp/compressor
Korg DRV-2000 digital reverb processor
Manley Enhanced Pultec EQP1A EQ
Neumann U 47 mic
PreSonus ACP88 compressor
Røde Classic mic
TC Electronic Finalizer mastering processor
Tube-Tech SMC 2B multiband compressor

Monitors:

Dynaudio M2, M3s
Genelec 1031s w/sub
Tannoy System 15DMT II dual 15-inch speakers
w/Crown K2 amps (2)
Yamaha NS10s

Consoles, mixers, interfaces:

Soundtracks Quartz 48:24:2 console

Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixers:

E-mu E6400 Ultra, ESI 2000, ESI 4000
samplers
Roland S-760 sampler

Synths, modules, software, plug-ins, instruments:

Roland A-33 keyboard (4)
Tech 21 SansAmp Bass Driver DI

Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects:

AKG C 3000, D 112 mics
Shure Beta 58A (2), KSM32 (3), SM81 (2), SM98 (3) mics

Monitors:

OHM MRB12s w/ BR218F subs
Studiomaster amp