Classical Gas: Dana Leong Employs Pure and Mutated Cellos to Create Electro-Jazz Rap

Cellist, multi-instrumentalist, composer, actor, and hybrid jazz, electronica, and hip-hop stylist Dana Leong has worked with Ray Charles, Kanye West, Yoko Ono, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Diddy, Wynton Marsalis, and others. Currently fronting Milk & Jade by Dana Leong—another genrebending project that recently performed sold-out shows in Serbia, Sweden, Germany, and Finland—the classically trained Manhattan School of Music alumni creates spellbinding textures by subjecting his cello to amplification, software plug-ins, and other electronic abuse. His most recent CD release is 2007’s Anthems of Life [Tateo Sound], but live and studio albums from Milk & Jade are on the way, and, this April, Leong debuted a multimedia show, Life After Dark, at New York’s Apollo Theater.
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How is your personal recording facility, Life After Dark Studios, set up?

It’s hidden away at the border of Harlem and Morningside Heights in Manhattan. I have three tracking areas and a control room. There’s a small collection of Neumanns and other mics that I route into Vintech 473 and Universal Audio 4110 preamps. All AD/DA conversion is via an Apogee Rosetta. In the live room, I keep a few drum kits, a Fender Rhodes, loads of horns, my cello, and a couple of electric basses. I have a love for low end, so I also keep three different Epifani bass cabinets on hand.

You’ve certainly pushed the traditional boundaries of the cello.

Strings can absolutely bring a certain fluidity and sense of class to a recording, but I view the cello not just as a classical string instrument, but also as an incredibly versatile instrument. For me, the cello can go beyond the purely melodic to become a percussive device, or even deliver a screaming, amped-out solo.

How do you usually mic your cello?

For a close-miked sound, I like to position a large-diaphragm condenser a few inches below the bridge. Other times, if I want a little more space in the sound, I will move the mic out in front, at about shoulder’s height from a player’s seated position. If I’m layering a lot of overdubs for textural stuff, I often keep the mic stationary, and then move around the room for different takes.

Do you use any effects?

I used to collect pedals constantly, but when the plug-in world started to boom about four years ago, I switched to software models. For example, I was extremely excited when the first version of Native Instruments Guitar Rig came out. Right now, I run about four full pages of virtual effects, including amp sounds, delays, compressors, reverbs, and wah-pedal emulations— and that’s just for starters.

Everything is digital, then?

Well, no. I think most of today’s great recordings find the perfect marriage between vintage analog gear and modern digital tools. I tend to keep certain things out of the digital domain, such as pitch shifters, preamps, and octavers. I play a lot of bass lines on my cello, so I have tried a lot of octavers, but I always go back to the Electro- Harmonix stuff because they produce a great analog sound, and they deliver the best tracking response.

You play trombone, as well. What setup do you use to record it?

I found that to get a loud, punchy brass sound—especially for trombone, tuba, and sousaphone—it takes a kickdrum mic, such as an AKG D 112. I even use that mic when playing live. However, if we’re doing a brass session that’s not loud or aggressive, I might switch to a mic with a little more fidelity, such as a Neumann TLM 103 large-diaphragm condenser.

Are there any sonic limitations to putting trombone and cello into hiphop music?

There are obstacles to deal with while creating music for a group lead by a trombone and cello. Obviously, you want to ensure that neither instrument competes with the vocal. In my case, this was more of a mindset shift than a technical matter. I wanted to combine the sounds of my instruments with the poetic acrobatics of an MC, so I found that I had to think like a vocalist while playing. I had to play the lyrics. In other words, the production approach was like two singers playing off each other, except, in my case, one of those singers happens to be a trombone or a cello.

Do you have a typical approach to composing, or does the fact that you play many instruments influence your creativity?

My creative process is flexible. Every instrument indeed requires a unique approach, so what you write while playing one instrument, probably wouldn’t be exactly the same if you had been composing with a different instrument. You won’t go to the same phrasing or tonal colors or whatever. Sometimes, I even sit with nothing but a pen and paper with which to write music. I like to switch it up and work with whatever inspires me. But, however you choose to create music, I’ve found it’s most productive when you think of yourself as a very concise speaker. You want your melodies, hooks, and solos to be fluid and memorable, and get straight to the point.