The Shape of Things

The trio that comprises Tpopmusik doesn't approach collaboration in any traditional sense of the word. In fact, Stephan Haeri, Fabrice Dumont and Christophe
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The trio that comprises Tpopmusik doesn't approach collaboration in any traditional sense of the word. In fact, Stephan Haeri, Fabrice Dumont and Christophe

The trio that comprises Télépopmusik doesn't approach collaboration in any traditional sense of the word. In fact, Stephan Haeri, Fabrice Dumont and Christophe Hetier spend more time ignoring each other than working together. Yet, somehow, when they meet up at the mixdown stage, a certain cohesion arrives almost magically.

At the moment, Haeri is at the group's studio in Paris. The space, usually stripped down to the bare essentials, is a mess because the group is rehearsing its live show. Still, the studio is a luxury for the three musicians who recorded their first album, Genetic World (Capitol/EMI, 2002), totally separate from one another in their respective homes. But at some points during the recording of their second album, Angel Milk (Capitol/EMI, 2005), the guys did work in the same building.

As far as the process goes, each member writes separately for a few months and then brings what he has to the others. Haeri focuses on the electronics and synthesizers — “The others are scared when they see wires,” he says — Dumont is the strings expert, and Hetier takes on the DJ side of things.

“We can work on the same song in two different rooms,” Haeri says. “If you go in one room, you only hear strings, and in the other, you only hear synthesizers. In the end, we argue, ‘I want more synthesizers,’ or, ‘No, don't touch my strings.’ That's what makes our sound. If I do a song completely alone, the way I work is not going to surprise me, the same for Fabrice. When we put the two together, both of us are surprised by the results because none of us separately could have done a track like that. If we were together in front of the same computer all the time, we would probably spend our time arguing about each instrument. This way, we can go far in both directions. And we only argue once, during the mix.”

The Télépopmusik setup revolves around an Apple Mac G4 running Steinberg Cubase SX2. The guys' outboard gear is minimal; their reliance is on virtual instruments, particularly Arturia Moog Modular V and Propellerhead Reason. But Haeri and the others work with their own sounds, not those provided by the software. And they refuse to sample from other artists.

ALTERED STATES OF MELODY

For the new record, Télépopmusik carried over two vocalists from Genetic World: Angela McCluskey (the voice on “Breathe,” featured on the ubiquitous Mitsubishi commercial) and Mau. The band also brought in Deborah Anderson, who is known for her work with the Stereo MCs, DJ Shadow and Kruder & Dorfmeister, among others.

One of Télépopmusik's main sources for sound manipulation is Celemony Melodyne, which is used to change the tuning for most of the vocals on the album. Because each of the vocalists lives in a different country, Télépopmusik counts on Melodyne when the vocalists cannot be there in person. For example, on “Into Everything,” the guys cut in Anderson's initial takes and built different melodies from what she came up with. And when Anderson returned two months after the original take, she resang the song along with the Melodyne-altered version of the melody.

Télépop got more in-depth with Melodyne for the McCluskey track “Brighton Beach,” which started out as a pop song with bass, drums and guitar. After working two months on the track, the band decided it wasn't any good, took the voice and concentrated on two synthesizers and some noise — that is, turning on every machine in the studio and recording the actual whirring and buzzing noises the machines made while running.

“This track was sung almost six or eight months before we worked on it,” Haeri says. “[McCluskey] sings 60 minutes on a track, and you can never find two times the same sentence. We took some words in one take and some words in the same sentence, which were made two weeks later. We worked a lot in Melodyne to make each word sound the same so you could feel like it was sung in one take.”

Working with McCluskey again on “Love's Almighty” — the type of grand orchestral number that the group had in mind for her all along — the band again employed Melodyne. “[McCluskey's] got a small part of the music she sings on for hours,” Haeri says. “We listen to everything, cut it in small pieces and rebuild some melodies. For this song, Angela didn't have the time to come back and re-sing it. Some of the notes were changed with the software. We kept all the words we did with the software because she could not come back, learn the songs again and change it directly.”

As for whether McCluskey received the orchestral parts to “Love's Almighty” prior to putting down the vocals, the answer is decidedly no. “Do you know what I get?” she asks. “I get a hammer knocking on a wall; that's what I get. They gave me a loop with maybe a couple of chords that change every 25 days. The whole point is, they get the melody from me, build it up around that and change it. Fabrice will bring in his part of what he likes and enhance it, and he'll take what I've done and enhance it. But it's basically empty when I get it.”

LIVE RECONSTRUCTIONS

The same orchestra used on “Love's Almighty” also appears on “Into Everything” as well as four other tracks on Angel Milk. With the parts already written by Dumont, the band traveled to Bulgaria to record the full orchestra; there, the trio recorded everything onto a Digidesign Pro Tools rig and then edited the sessions in Cubase back in the Télépopmusik studio.

Taking what was recorded live, the band used the TC Electronic TC PowerCore and Universal Audio UAD-1 plug-ins to create effects on the double bass. Outboard digital signal processors had to be purchased for this purpose. “In the middle of the song, there is a weird sound which sounds like synthesizers,” Haeri says. “I took the original take of the double bass and put it through distortion with delay and filters. Everything was done with the real orchestra sound. In the end, it was sounding really classical, so I put everything in a distortion with some filters by moving the low-cut frequency. At the end, even the drum pattern sounds very electronic, but it was done with real drums.

“What was a nightmare was the second part of the song,” Haeri continues. “You have some horns that were recorded with the orchestra in Bulgaria, but when we came back, all the saxophones were out of tune. We asked another guy to play some saxophone here in the studio and another guy to play the trumpet. But they were alone, and for the orchestra, there were eight or 10 people doing the horns. We had to record four times the single-trumpet guy to have the impression that it was also done by an orchestra. It was completely rebuilt with small pieces and mixed together to create the same kind of reverb as if it were taken in a huge room as it was done in Bulgaria.”

A favorite instrument in the Télépopmusik stable is the guitar, probably because it is the only instrument that Haeri can play with any proficiency. Even so, he only tends to record a minute or two of playing and then proceeds to spend days and weeks changing the sound, rebuilding it with pitch-shifting and filtering through equalizers. And after editing, he sometimes sends the sounds through an amplifier and rerecords them with outboard effects. This is a practice that Haeri says the French refer to as “fly fucking,” proudly dubbing himself a “fly fucker.”

For “Into Everything,” this type of guitar manipulation is rampant. “In the end, it doesn't sound at all like a guitar,” Haeri admits. “As usual, we changed the chords. I took the take and cut it in about 20 pieces. I put it in reverse — some of the notes, not even all of them. It took me three days to make a two- or three-second loop with the guitar.”

The bass guitar is used, as well, but not as prominently. A great deal of the bass sounds are generated on synthesizers, some with Moog Modular V, others with a Roland SH-32. Sometimes, the band creates the sounds on the guitar, shifting them down one to two octaves. The band members also do this with synthesizers; they record parts one octave higher than desired and then pitch-shift them down along with the reverb for a spacey effect.

Yet another interesting sound comes from a Japanese string instrument called the koto, featured on the Mau-sung track “Last Train to Wherever.” Initially hearing it on a Japanese record, Télépop tracked down the instrument and called in a professional player to re-create the sound (because, again, the band won't sample). For the percussion portion of “Last Train,” the three bandmates combed the music stores of Paris for two weeks, playing every small percussion instrument they came across in an effort to nail another sound they heard on the Japanese record. They found it in a Tibetan instrument that looks like a small soup plate. Because both instruments were completely out of tune, the band put them through Melodyne to be adjusted. Not stopping there, the band recorded Mau's raps on “Last Train to Wherever” in double speed and then slowed them down on tape. “It sounds really deep and makes me sound much more cool than I actually sound in reality,” Mau admits.

INTREPID TWEAKING

Télépopmusik used three microphones prominently on Angel Milk: a Blue Bottle, a Neumann TLM 147 and a Shure SM58. Despite the voices being vastly different, the Bottle emerged as the overall favorite. “We put a lot of different effects on the vocals, even in the same track,” Haeri says. “The first verse sounds like that; in another verse, the song is completely different. [People might] think it's something that was done on purpose, but it's just because we recorded the first verse six months before the second one with another mic. They don't sound the same, so we had to push in another direction so people think it was done on purpose.”

From the microphone, the vocals go through an Avalon Vt-737sp preamp, at which point the band applies a small amount of equalization before sending the signal to the computer. At times, such as on “Into Everything,” some parts of the vocals are played through a Vox guitar amp with a distortion effect to get a midfrequency sound, with delay and Cubase's BitCrusher plug-in (an effect that ranges from short-wave radio to distortion sounds) added later.

“I don't want to do two times the same thing,” Haeri says. “Sometimes, I've got a great sound for a voice on one track, but I don't try to copy what I did on another one to see if it's going to work or not. For each track, I forget everything I did for the one before to see what I can do for this one. It would be too easy otherwise.”

Regardless of how they start a track, sometimes Haeri and his cohorts completely change it by the end, as with “Brighton Beach.” In that case, Télépopmusik approached it as a remix in which they kept only the vocal and rebuilt the instrumental portion from scratch. They pitched down two octaves the Access Virus B synth, as well as Moog Modular V, and filtered through plug-ins in Cubase; small parts of the track were cut to sound more electronic.

Similarly, on “Close,” the band kept only the voice and scrapped the music entirely. Télépop changed the chords and wrote new music around a percussion base, for which Haeri used a frying pan, beating it with wooden sticks. He used the same sticks on his sofa, cutting up the recording and putting it through distortion and EQ to create the sound of a bass drum. Finally, the band took guitars from a different song and pitched them to fit “Close.”

All of this studio manipulation presents a challenging task when it comes to live translation. Luckily — or unluckily, as the case may be — the live aspect is something Télépopmusik does not take into consideration in the least when recording. The Télépop stage show comprises a drummer, a guitarist, a bassist, a keyboard player and vocalists. The drummer plays an electronic drum kit with a sampler. And the synthesizers are played with a guitar plugged into a computer, using the plug-ins to make the guitar more synthlike. The same goes for the bass.

“We completely separate [live and studio] because, otherwise, we're going to put a limit on ourselves for the record,” Haeri says. “The problem is, after the album is finished, it's a nightmare. It sounds different to the album, but it's ‘real live.’ A band coming onstage and pushing the Play button and dancing to music already recorded on a computer? Not really interesting.”

MAKING ANGEL MILK

Computers, DAWs, recording hardware, interfaces:
Apogee Rosetta 800 A/D/A converter
Apple Mac G4/dual 1.25GHz computer
MOTU 308 audio interface w/PCI-324 soundcard, Micro Express MIDI interface
Steinberg Cubase SX2 DAW software

Software, plug-ins:
Arturia Moog Modular V
Celemony Melodyne
Propellerhead Reason
TC Electronic PowerCore FireWire processor, PCI MKII card
Universal Audio UAD-1 Studio Pak

Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixer:
E-mu E5000 Ultra, E6400 samplers
Roland MC-505 Groovebox

Synths, modules, instruments:
Access Virus B synth
Epiphone acoustic guitar
Fender Jazz bass, Rhodes piano, Stratocaster guitar, Twin Reverb guitar amp
Korg ElecTribe EA-1 synth
Moog EtherWave Theremin
Roland SH-32 synth
Steinway concert piano
Various instruments: cello, clarinet, double bass, flute, horns, koto, santur, saxophone, Tibetan bells, percussion, trumpet, violins
Vox AC30 guitar amp

Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects:
Avalon Vt-737sp preamp
Blue Bottle mic
Focusrite Platinum Voicemaster preamp
Neumann TLM 147 mic
Sennheiser MD 441 mic
Shure SM57, SM58 mics
TC Electronic System 6000 processor

Monitors:
Dynaudio Confidence C2 Loudspeakers
Mackie HR824 monitors
Musical Fidelity A308CR amplifiers, CD-Pre24 preamplifier, D/A converter

INSIDE THE VOCAL BOOTH

With three separate maestros directing the overall sound, the Angel Milk recording process was not always the easiest experience to navigate. Here's an inside look from the vocalists' perspective at Télépopmusik's studio situation.

DEBORAH ANDERSON

“The musicians I've worked with before gave me a beat and said, ‘Make a song,’” Anderson says. “Télépop gave me the most beautiful music. It was 10 minutes' worth of music, and from that, I would try and write a three-minute song. That wasn't the problem. The problem was, ‘Can you give me a longer piece of music to write to?’

“I write with their sensibility in mind. Loads of times you find yourself having to please more than yourself. The more they developed the music around [my melodies], the more they wanted to define my melody or my lyric on top of that. I felt I was exactly what they were looking for.”

MAU

“They say one thing today, and they've totally forgotten it tomorrow,” Mau says. “We'll talk about doing a certain song in a certain style, and I'll be like, ‘Yeah, yeah, great. I'll start writing some stuff.’ I'll see them the next day, and they'll be like, ‘What?’ I always know not to take it too seriously, because half of it, they've forgotten. I don't know why, and I don't even want to figure it out anymore.

“They know what they want, but they're not good at communicating — or they're not very courageous at saying exactly what they want. They will give you lots of music, and they'll let you take your time, but, finally, they'll say, ‘We wanted this.’ They're strange, but like [most] bands, they have a weird relationship with each other because they've known each other for so long.”

ANGELA McCLUSKEY

“Last time, they didn't really know what they were doing, so it was easier,” McCluskey says. “I was only there for four days. This time, we did about 80 songs. They know what they like, but they're very bad at explaining that to you. One of them is like, ‘I don't know, maybe, uh, a bit of reggae would be nice.’ The other one is like, ‘I don't want you to be so universal,’ which means poppy. And the other would be, ‘But you know, you don't have to even sing — do what you want; do what you feel.’

“What I do with Télépop is me indulging myself. The boys encourage me to sing in that manner, very laid-back jazzy. That crackly thing that Télépop likes is just called tiredness. It's almost like I have to be a method actor to sing live what I do on the record.”