Should Jean-Pierre Smadja — known as Smadj — ever find himself marooned on a desert island, he wouldn't be in any rush to drop a message in a bottle or make a radio out of a coconut. “I'd need my oud and electricity for the laptop, and I'd be fine,” says the Tunisian-born musician. “I could make music, and perhaps years after that, you'd have the results.”
Indeed, it was with little more than an Apple PowerBook G3 and an oud (an ancient Arabian precursor to the guitar) that Smadj wrote and recorded his latest CD, Take It and Drive (Rasa, 2006), over a period of three years. An amalgam of hypnotic beats, Oriental melodies, and Middle Eastern mystique, the CD marries East with West and old with new.
“Each time I encounter a new culture or new music or a new way to play, I try to work with it,” says Smadj, who was raised in Paris and now lives in Istanbul. “I discover a culture, and I try to learn it; I try to mix my sound with it.”
More than cultural cross-pollination, Drive signifies a meeting of heart and hard drive, as Smadj's digital compositions maintain a distinctly human quality. “It was a period where I tried to do electronic, but live,” he says.
To accomplish that, he built most songs from the bottom up, using programs such as Ableton Live 3 and Propellerhead Reason 2.5 and ReBirth 2.0 to record beats on the fly and then play them for collaborating musicians, who contributed vocals, guitar, and other instruments. With Steinberg Cubase 5 as his primary recording software, Smadj reached into a vast library of samples he'd compiled over 15 years working as a sound engineer. From there, he'd either load clips onto samplers (such as the Akai MPC 2000 XL and the Ensoniq EPS 16+) or tweak them with software.
When overlaying vocals or oud, Smadj did as necessity dictated. Because much of the album was made while he was on the road, he often recorded in hotel rooms, where having an elaborate microphone setup wasn't feasible. Instead, he relied on mics such as the Aiwa CM-S33 (a stereo condenser), which he plugged directly into his PowerBook.
“The preamp is not so bad on this laptop,” he says. “When I was on tour and had an idea, I always took this microphone to record the oud or other instruments.”
Time being scarce, Smadj employed a technique he wouldn't ordinarily use, incorporating first-take recordings of each new part into a song's 2-track master as he went. In that way, the masters kept growing, but the track counts remained low — a process he also used when adding contributions from other musicians.
“After each recording — it could be electronic or acoustic — I edited the thing, so I didn't do the classic process of multitrack recording,” he says. “Most of the time, I had [a 2-track master] in each step.”
That doesn't mean the individual tracks on Drive are undoctored. From the robot-stutter vocals of “He Said” (created with Live) to the low bass rumble on “Betty” (a sample looped through a subfrequency generator), Smadj's digital fingerprints are everywhere.
Sometimes the challenge was deciding when to stop tweaking and let a song be. For that, he'd seek the opinions of friends and family, which suggests that he might not be so effective in a Robinson Crusoe — type scenario after all. “You can never stop — you need help,” he says with a laugh. “You need someone else telling you, ‘Stop it now; it's time.’”
Home base: Istanbul, Turkey
Key software: Steinberg Cubase 5, Ableton Live 3, Propellerhead Reason 2.5
Primary instrument: Oud