SOMETIMES HAVING ECLECTIC TASTE IN MUSIC is a burden. That’s what Adam Freeland (also known simply as Freeland) discovered upon making his second full-length album, CopeTM. Freeland got his start as a breakbeat DJ in the mid- ’90s, releasing his first mix CD, Coastal Breaks, Vol. 1, in 1996. Since then, the dancefloor has been his bread and butter. He continued putting out mix CDs, launched his own label (Marine Parade), and released a debut solo album, Now & Them, in 2003. But he never zeroed in on one type of dance music.
“A lot of people, especially in the electronic world, have a very niche direction,” Freeland says. “For example, they like minimal house, and that’s what they do very specifically. I like too many different kinds of music—quite a lot.”
Consequently, when Freeland started writing CopeTM, it was a tug-o-war of ideas, none of which were quite right—at first.
“I was making a shoegazer drone record, because I thought the whole point of the freedom of having a band was that I wouldn’t feel confined to what I need to do for the dancefloor,” he says. “But I did a whole record like that and realized that it was really cool, but it wasn’t as good as some of the bands that have influenced me. Then I started doing really rocky stuff, and then I flipped the other way and would do super electronic stuff. The revelation was that I was separating a lot of the music I love from home listening use as different from what I play in nightclubs, and I realized that I could combine them both.”
THE METRIC SYSTEM
Once Freeland loosened up and let the two worlds collide musically, the album flowed. He teamed up with producer Alex Metric, who at first tinkered with the tracks Freeland had been working on. But the process was slow going, so they started over from scratch.
“You can just do stuff to figure out what you don’t want to do,” Freeland says. “Once you’ve been sitting on stuff for a while, you overanalyze it, and it’s nice just to start again.”
Beginning fresh, the guys got to the business of figuring out how best to collaborate. Metric is a synth guy (with many sounds coming from the Arturia Moog Modular V soft synth and Korg MS-20 hardware synth), and Freeland is the sample dude.
Grabbing samples from old records (often found in the dollar section at Amoeba in L.A.), Freeland tends to look for open guitar chords, strings or pads at the ends of tracks, where there isn’t too much going on in the mix, and he has an easier time separating out sounds. He then experiments with the samples in either Apple Logic or Ableton Live.
“I’m very textural,” he says. “I don’t think of a melody in my head and go in the studio and write it. I’ll literally get a really cool, pulsing, throbbing sound going, and then get a motion going from a loop that I’ve distorted the hell out of and stretched and pitched and resonated.”
While the two synth-versus-sample approaches helped the duo crank out ideas, it was a project that came up while working on the album that really provided inspiration. Freeland and Metric were hired to score Juiced 2, a driving video game that required some high-energy music.
“We had to write a massive amount of music in a really short amount of time, so we couldn’t be too precious about it,” Freeland says. The guys cranked out so much material that they ended up re-adapting some of it for CopeTM.
More inspiration came from the help of some high-profile musicians, including indie-rock icon/guitarist Joey Santiago from The Pixies, goth-rock bassist Twiggy Ramirez (Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails), multiinstrumentalist Jerry Casale of Devo, singer Brody Dalle and guitarist Tony Bevilacqua of The Distillers and Spinnerette, and Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee.
Working with Ramirez, Freeland gave him a basic structure of synthbass lines and let him have at it.
“We did crazy 20-minute takes on stuff when we only needed, like, two bars,” Freeland says with a laugh.
But while Ramirez recorded a freeform jam, Santiago heard the tracks in advance for “Morning Sun,” wrote his part, and came prepared to play it in one take.
“He came in, did it, it was f**king cool, and that was that,” Freeland says.
As for Lee, the hardest part was scheduling a time to have him come in.
“Just getting him in a room for an afternoon is a major achievement,” he says. “It takes some serious logistics, because he’s such an in-demand busy person. On ‘Mancry,’ which is that one with the big epic drum solo build-up thing, I wanted him to do this big build up and release to nothing. He hadn’t heard it before, but just did it straight off, and it was great.”
Meanwhile, Bevilacqua spilled out guitar melody after melody with ease.
“Every time he would play, I’d be like, ‘That’s dope, that’s dope, that’s dope!’ It’s just like too much cool stuff. You have to pretty much close your eyes and go, ‘Okay, I’ll take that bit.’”
Gearwise, Freeland’s ace in the hole is his Universal Audio UAD-1 card and UAD plug-ins.
“They just ended up making everything sound so much more classy than the way we were doing stuff,” he says.
Other studio favorites include the Resonator plug-in in Ableton Live, his Alesis 3630 dual-channel compressor, a Roland SRE-555 Chorus Echo, and a Boss SE-70 Super Effects Processor. Then, there is his Lynx Aurora 8 A/D/A converter. People often overlook the importance of a good soundcard, Freeland says: “Your chain is as strong as your weakest link, and if you’ve got all this really tasty valve outboard gear and you’re putting through a $300 soundcard, you’re kind of wasting your time.”
And although he mixed CopeTM in the computer, Freeland didn’t want the album to sound totally in-the-box.
“Electronic music can be too clean and brittle and harsh,” he admits, “so I’d put tracks through guitar pedals and through the TL Audio M3 Tube- Tracker valve desk and jam the audio through the Chorus Echo so loud that everything is just distorting off of the tape. It’s supposed to be an echo/tape delay/reverb thing, but I end up using it as a distortion unit because the way it breaks up sounds really cool.”
And that was just the beginning of Freeland’s love affair with distortion, not to mention his obsession with compression.
COPING WITH COMPRESSION
Everything Freeland has learned about compression he discovered from blindly turning knobs.
“The guy who I bought some gear from, I was showing him how I was doing it, and he was like, ‘Oh, you’re not supposed to do it like that, and no one uses that knob for that.’ And I was like, ‘Well, it sounds good to me!’”
And so Freeland continues to be driven by what sounds good to him. Put five compressors on one channel? Sounds good to him. Such was the case with the shoegaze-y pulsating synth in “Mancry,” which, along with the dynamically swelling solo from Lee, recalls the distinct flavor of French band M83. And then there’s the synthpulsing insanity of “Strange Things,” featuring Freeland’s touring singer, Kurt Baumann.
Freeland started with the UAD compressor on the synth “to get the really, crazy suck-y sound,” piled on a few more compressors, and finally added a Logic compressor (with the sidechaining feature), which would make everything in the signal chain pulse.
“I’d create one channel of a kick drum on the one, giving that no output,” he explains. “And then on the channel that you’re trying to sidechain, I put a compressor on it, and then put the sidechain input set up to the output of that channel—which is technically the invisible channel because you’re not hearing it. So the kick drum is triggering the compressor to compress on every beat. You can obviously just play with the threshold and the release and all the other fun things with it. But we just kept putting more compressors on because it kept sounding better, and because we could.” [Laughs.]
OCEAN OF DISTORTION
Freeland didn’t stop at heavily compressing instruments. As drastic as the treatments were to the synths on “Strange Things,” so were the vocal treatments. Freeland recorded five layers of Baumann’s vocals, with each layer treated differently.
“We would really distort the hell out of one of the layers using Camel Audio CamelPhat or d16 Desimort or Devastor plug-ins and pan one totally to one side, and then do the same with another layer and pan it to the other side, so you have totally different distortions happening on either side on the vocals, and then the main one upfront,” Freeland says. “It’s really harsh, what we’re doing, but we put it really low in the mix so it gives it that fullness and texture.”
Along with the compressors, distortions, and a lush-sounding UAD DreamVerb reverb plug-in that were all used on the album, Freeland tends to end every chain (after the Logic sidechain compressor) with a PSP Vintage Tube Warmer.
“I use that a lot because it just brings everything to life,” he says. “It just warms stuff up and makes it fuller, and it also acts like a limiter, because, a lot of the time, my channels are so red lined.”
Aside from plug-ins, Freeland also has some favorite distortion and delay pedals/units, including the Hughes & Kettner Tube Factor, VHT Valvulator I, and Electro-Harmonix Memory Man.
But one of Freeland’s favorite things to do is run harmonic-heavy, distorted guitar parts through Live’s Resonator plug-in.
“You can pitch the Resonator to the key of the distorter and then pitch the Resonator to the key of whatever that part is,” he says. “As you mess with the pitch and go through the semitone range of the Resonator, it pulls out sevenths and fifths and thirds that are in there, which gives this really fat, wide kind of burning sound to a pad or a chord. The problem is, any mixing engineers you work with might end up putting their heads in their hands because it fills up the whole frequency range. [Laughs.] It uses all your bandwidth!”
MAKING THE TRANSITION
One thing that songwriters often forget—and is left to producers to handle—is a good transition in between sections of a song. Freeland has a few tricks up his sleeve for that. And he usually doesn’t have to create new parts to forewarn that a change is coming because the ideas are already at his disposal.
“It’s not like, ‘Hey, we need something to take us from here to there,’” he says. “It’s generally already in the arrangement somewhere. For every part or melody line that’s on the record, there’s probably ten that didn’t get on there, so you’ve got all this other stuff running, but muted, on other channels. So a lot of times, it’s just unmuting something for one bar.”
Freeland will also bounce down parts that are already being used, process them differently, and repurpose them for a transition. “So suddenly, it occupies a different sonic space if it’s going through a different kind of distortion, reverb, or filtering—like taking all the bottom end out.”
And another idea is to decrescendo rather than build up to a chorus change. “You could slowly turn the volume down on sounds throughout an eight-bar progression before a change comes,” he suggests. “You notice when sounds come in, but you don’t really notice when they disappear if you take them out slowly. So a lot of the time, we just draw in automation on sounds so that things get consistently quieter throughout, and when that transition does happen, suddenly everything goes up a couple dB, and it’s exciting again.”