Trash to Treasure - EMusician

Trash to Treasure

Manhattan may be the city that never sleeps, but Madhattan is where the magic happens. Tucked into New York City's Hell's Kitchen, this two-bedroom apartment-turned-studio
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Manhattan may be the city that never sleeps, but Madhattan is where the magic happens. Tucked into New York City's Hell's Kitchen, this two-bedroom apartment-turned-studio is home to production team Ming+FS. For seven years, Aaron Albano (Ming) and Fred Sargolini (FS) lived and worked in the tiny apartment on 43rd Street, proving that cramped quarters can breed open-minded music. By incorporating elements of house, hip-hop, jungle, drum 'n' bass and breakbeat, Ming+FS created a grab-bag genre known as “junkyard.”

But these days, that label doesn't fit the duo as snuggly as it once did. Although Ming+FS still advocate using myriad musical influences, their latest release, Back to One (Spun, 2004), is their most genre-specific album to date. “When we did our first album on Om [1999's Hell's Kitchen], that was our main output,” Ming explains. “We were only working on Ming+FS material. The music was all over the place, and we were told people weren't gonna like it. We put it out in a vacuum, so when it did well, we were really pleased that, wow, there is musical diversity out there. But in the last two years, we've been producing a lot of other artists, working on things that are very genre-specific, so we haven't felt the need to add all these elements to our own record. Instead, we've been able to get at the core of our sound. We've always been primarily a hip-hop group. It's progressive, it's left of center, and people have used that term junkyard, but with this record, we really wanted to focus on the different aspects of hip-hop. We looked to downtempo and experimental hip-hop instead of pulling from multiple genres. Back to One is us returning to our roots.”

A WORTHY BRIBE

For FS, the marriage between music and electronics ran through his blood. Living in Connecticut with an Italian opera-loving grandfather who dabbled with shortwave radios and a father who taught chemistry for 27 years, FS says he inherited an open-minded “scientist mentality.” As a precocious 10-year-old in 1983, he was already messing around with turntables and listening to Run-DMC. Several years later, he famously turned an old Atari into a mixer using comically simple electronics-store parts.

“We didn't have a mixer, and that was way before Rane and Vestax,” FS explains. “You had these huge house mixers, literally with knobs, like the UREIs. That was all DJs had back then, and we all wanted smaller mixers. My family always had components around — my basement looked like a fucking electronics store. First, we tried to use the switches in the Atari, just ripping the insides out and using the components, but those switches were just on and off, so that didn't work. Instead, we bored a hole out of the middle and used a Radio Shack part that was basically a transformer switch, which worked much better.”

By the time he was 16, FS had friends sneaking him out of class Ferris Bueller — style so that he could DJ. “I was practicing literally seven or eight hours a day,” he recalls. “People started setting up parties for me to battle people, and I would just cream them. Not to sound cocky, but not everybody could transform, not everybody could flash, and I could do that stuff 'cause I spent eight hours a day copying Jazzy Jeff and Cash Money & Marvelous, who had just won DMC.”

At 16, FS also had a rapping deal with Polygram. “Luckily, that fell through, or else I would have been the next Vanilla Ice,” he says. Although most teenagers beg their parents for a car, FS already had sights set elsewhere. “I wanted a sampler, so I basically blackmailed my parents,” FS admits. “I said, ‘You gotta buy me an Ensoniq EPS 16+, or I'm not gonna finish high school.’ They bought me the keyboard, and I graduated. I'm not proud of treating my parents that way, but that's how I got into producing.”

Growing up in Stonybrook, Long Island, Ming enjoyed an equally musical, though more structured, upbringing. He began playing guitar at 9 and took private lessons throughout his teen years, playing in several metal bands before deciding to leave Long Island for sunnier surroundings. Ming studied audio engineering at the University of Miami in the early '90s, when jungle and breakbeat were lapping at the Florida coast more furiously than the Atlantic tides, and he returned to New York with a crate of electronic records in tow.

FS also ended up in New York, studying jazz piano at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. He got a job producing beats for mainstream hip-hop and R&B acts like Coolio and Brandy — a gig he has called “major-label crap.” Feeling somewhat disillusioned, FS couldn't have met Ming at a better time. The pair crossed paths at a house party that Ming was DJing, playing experimental trip-hop unlike anything FS had ever heard.

“I was totally ignorant of electronica,” FS says. “When I heard the breakbeat and drum 'n' bass stuff he was playing, I realized it was all James Brown samples. I literally had all that stuff, and at that point, that's what jungle was. There was more to it with reggae and dub, but coming from a hip-hop background, that's what I focused on.”

The pair briefly formed a band called Millis before segueing into electronic production under the name Leadfoot. Their early releases were successful, and Ming and FS soon opened their own studio and record label, Madhattan, launching the Ming+FS name.

SOUND REASONING

Now seven years into something that they never planned, Ming+FS are releasing their fourth album. Madhattan has come a long way since its modest beginnings, and even though the studio is outfitted impressively, the pair says that it relied largely on Propellerhead Reason to make this album. “FS and I both worked differently prior to making this record,” Ming explains. “I used the E-mu E64 a lot, and he used the Akai MPC2000, but we found that it wasn't flexible enough for our sample library and our sounds. When we started using Reason two years ago, we found that we could each work on stuff and pass it along to each other very easily. There's not a lot of bullshit with Reason. It's very quick to get the result that you need. It's all in one package, but it's not a cheesy piece of software, not one of these band-in-a-box type softwares. It's like a really great guitar. It sounds right; it operates right; it becomes integral to what you do.”

“Reason has samplers in it, so we basically used that as our main sampler,” FS adds. “But we didn't stick to the sounds in that sound bank. A lot of people use Reason, and they just use the canned sounds that are in there. That's not what the record is.”

Instead, Ming+FS sample themselves. “We don't clear shit,” Ming says. “Unless there was a sample that we thought was really integral to a song, we're not about clearing samples. We're just tweakers, and we like to make our own sounds. I'll play a four-bar loop, get it perfect, and then we'll chop it up as if we were sampling it so it changes the feel. Also, when you're writing a song, it's very hard to get samples to be in the right key and not sound overprocessed, so sometimes we'll have an idea, and then we'll either play something slower and time-compress it or pitch it to the right key and make it sound more like a sample. But on the whole, I think if you can play your own instruments, you should try.”

Both can, and both do. FS plays bass and Rhodes, and Ming plays guitar — a Fender Strat with a 62 body and a custom fretboard. “With instruments, we have a very throw-and-go technique,” Ming says. “We just set something up and see if it sounds good. Then, we just move the mic around until it sounds good.”

Live instruments usually go through two channels stripped out of a Neve 33122a preamp/EQ — a $3,000 piece of equipment that FS says is entirely “worth the money.” All of the instruments are tracked into MOTU Digital Performer 4 before FS engineers the final songs. “I don't go too crazy with the Ming+FS stuff,” he says. “People who listen to that kind of music don't necessarily want it superpolished. I try to clean it up as much as I can, but I also leave it a little rough, not too pretty.”

POWER OF SPEECH

Five of Back to One's 11 tracks feature Napoleon Solo, an MC whom Ming+FS met during DJ Spooky's Infinite Justice tour. “Napoleon is the most musical MC I've ever met,” FS contends. “He plays with James Blood Ulmer and a lot of other jazz cats. It's cool to meet somebody that is into hip-hop as much as I am but doesn't have that pinhead mentality that, ‘I can only listen to hip-hop, and hip-hop is only this.’ He understands the musical side to hip-hop.”

Vocals travel a similar route to the instruments, going through the Neve EQs and then into Digital Performer 4. Madhattan is equipped with several microphones, but Ming+FS rely mostly on an AKG 414. “That mic happens to sound good with the vocal range that MCs generally are,” Ming explains. “And the mic is particularly good with the vocal range Napoleon has. He's less of a punchy MC who's yelling into the mic and more of a storyteller. I think the concept is to capture him telling stories within the music so that the recording is more like he's one of the instruments.”

“We feel like Napoleon has a right to push his agenda also,” FS says. “He writes the lyrics, but it's a collaboration. For instance, he wrote one verse that had something about a kid getting shot in the head. We thought it was a little too graphic, so we asked if we could change that, and he was like, ‘No problem.’ But we do want him to speak his mind.”

In most cases, Napoleon's rhymes do reflect the nature of Ming+FS, particularly in the song “Skills and Grace.” Built around Napoleon's diatribe against commercial hip-hop and the bling lifestyle of rappers, the track's signature is a time-delayed vocal that overlaps and echoes over an ominous organ melody: “When they pack the place, fill it up to the top / We pray for skills and grace, and we rock.” Then, everything changes.

“Instead of going into a third verse, we opted to just pull the plug on the track,” Ming says. “Often when we do that, we just think, ‘What sonically needs to happen next?’ We went into the scratching part, which is a throwback to some of the stuff that we did on our other records. It's a cut-and-paste, scratched-in vocal line with some Japanese vocals in the background. And then we wanted to drop the bottom out. It gets really sparse. We let the track breathe a little bit, experimenting with space instead of letting the vocals push the track forward. It's like Napoleon sets up this great lyrical flow, and you get really into what he's saying. Then, you just drop the bottom out of it and let the vibe float out. You take a deep breath: Breathe in, breathe out, and then the beat drops back in.”

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

Moments like that make the Ming+FS live show as compelling as it is. With a setup that includes four turntables, a guitar and a bass, their live performances are a finely tuned reflection of the hours spent in the studio compiling and preparing tracks. “Back to One is a better listening album, but the challenge will be to get the material up to the energy of the live show,” FS explains. “How do we match the downness of this album to the stuff we do live?”

Ming echoes that concern: “This record isn't as exciting as our live show, but it's not supposed to be. So before a tour, we remix our own tracks. We'll take the vocal snippets we like and redo the music on this track, or we'll take the music from one of our tracks and drop someone else's a cappella over it. We just start collecting music that we think is going to create a good show. Sometimes, we like a piece of music but not the whole song, like, ‘It'd be great if these 32 bars weren't there.’ Since we're using the [Pioneer] CDJs, we can go in and edit all the music to the exact format that we want. We edit all that stuff in DP4 and then put the tracks in the order that we need them to be. Then, we start rehearsing and figuring out routines and deciding on the best way to organize the set. It's like, ‘Does this transition work? I've got this half-time beat playing with this drum 'n' bass beat coming in over it; you drop this a cappella and start scratching in this other thing.’ We really massage it until it works properly.”

“With four turntables, you definitely need to have chunks worked out; otherwise, you're gonna be trainwrecking and sounding like every other guy who plays on four tables,” FS warns. Those preplanned sections allow them to work out kinks beforehand while also giving them the ability to react to a specific crowd.

“It's kind of like making a really good mixtape,” Ming describes. “Except it's gotta be better than a mixtape because you're up there doing it. We know we can go into some noisy section for about 15 seconds that will fill the club with this amazing amount of craziness. Then, we're just gonna drop the floor out of it and drop in a really clean, solid beat, and people will be like, ‘Daaaamn!’ Sometimes, you have to put some tension in your show and resolve the tension the same way we write our tracks to move them along, especially when you don't have a lead singer to bring you through the show.”

Ming+FS are currently in the throes of this process, preparing for their upcoming tour that starts in August. With Napoleon Solo likely to join them, these dates promise to be as impressive as ever. “It may not be the best thing since your mother's home cooking,” FS concedes. “But I think we've solidified what we do.”

MADHATTAN MINUTIAE

Computer, DAW, recording hardware and software:
Apple Mac G4 dual 800MHz w/flat-screen
monitors, Mac G4 laptops (2), iPod, iTunes BIAS Peak 4.1 audio editor MOTU 2408 interface, Digital Performer 4.1
software, MIDI Express XT interface Otari DAT
Propellerhead Reason 2.5, ReCycle 2.1 software
Roxio Toast w/Jam 6 software
Tascam 202 MK III dual cassette deck

Console:
Yamaha O2R
Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixer:
Akai MPC2000XL sampler
E-mu E4XT Ultra sampler
Ensoniq ASR-10 sampler
Pioneer CDJ-1000 CD turntables
Rane TTM 54i, TTM 56 mixers
Technics SL-1200MK2 turntables (2)

Synths, modules, plug-ins, instruments:
Ernie Ball Musicman StingRay bass
Fender 62-Special Custom Shop Stratocaster
guitar, Rhodes 88 keyboard
Gretsch 1967 Chet Atkins Tennesseean guitar
Hammond XB-2 organ
Ibanez RG 760 guitar
Korg Wavestation synth
Novation K-Station synth
M-Audio Oxygen 8 MIDI keyboard controller
Roland JP-8000 synth
Taylor acoustic guitar
Yamaha CS-01 II synth

Mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects, mics:
AKG 414 mic
Alesis M-EQ 230 EQ
Budda Bud-Wah wah pedal
dbx DDP digital dynamics processor
Line 6 Floor Board foot controller, Pod Pro effects unit
Mackie 1402-VLZ Pro mixer
Mesa/Boogie Mark IV, Studio Caliber amps
Neve 33122a preamp/EQs (2)
Peterson Strobe Tuner R450
Pioneer EFX-500 effects unit
Samson S-com Plus stereo compressor/limiter

Monitors, headphones:
Mackie HR824 studio monitors
Sony MDR-7506 headphones