Fort Knox Five

The word “family” is thrown about a lot when talking to any of the members of Fort Knox Five. Drawing members from Thievery Corporation and their Eighteenth Street Lounge Music label (which touts other contributors Thunderball), as well as Fort Knox recording artists Rex Riddim, Speedy Consuela, International Velvet, and Liftoff, the Washington, D.C.-based collective has recently released their first non-vinyl offering entitled The New Gold Standard — a compilation from their imprint that’s reaching beyond the world of DJ culture into a new, eclectic aural segment made up of dub, indie-soul, psych-rock, and electro Middle Eastern music. These elements have long been mixed and matched to forge what is known as “the Fort Knox sound.”
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BEAT SURRENDER

Every song that comes out of the Fort Knox camp starts with a basic framework or sketch: generally just a beat or loop, recorded into Pro Tools 6 and then made available to the Fort Knox contributors. These various musicians/producers then use this sketch to play and create against, adding their respective touches that make the finished product(s) as diverse and multi-faceted as possible.

“Once we do a number of passes, work through a groove, [and] pitch out ideas as we’re recording, the four of us sit back and see what we have, then sample ourselves again and pull the elements we feel have the magic moments,” says contributor Sid Barcelona. “The parts that are laid out previously influence the new parts. If something comes up that we like from a bass session, we might go back and re-record some more guitars. It’s organic dialogue going back and forth between the instruments.”

TO THE ’70S

The Fort Knox aim is to hit a sound circa 1973. This was the time where folk and rock were absorbed into pop, with funk and jazz coming into play as well. The production style is based on the engineers who knew how to mic in the ’70s, because they had worked in the ’50s and ’60s when there was an incredibly organic feel to the recording process. Channeling George Martin and what he might be experimenting with in the current time: It is all about sonic exploration — not limited to the instruments’ capabilities, but what different frequencies might do.

“If we have a nice horn section, but it’s from a series of different samples, we’ll have a horn player come in and play over it again to either replace it or reinforce it — turn it into something organic,” Rob Myers explains. “A lot of times, even if it’s a splendid horn sample, it will sound over-recorded . . . too present, like there’s too much information to it. You need to put it in its place. We really like to get to the point in the track where we have a rhythm section of the drum kit we made in Pro Tools, then play it against this fake orchestra we created. Mix it the same way you would a live band so it feels like it’s happening in one room, as opposed to DJ/dance culture where placement isn’t as important because there, sonically, people are happy to have a sample triggering in full frequency, non-acoustic space. We like to place everything in an acoustic space.”

PRO-FESSIONAL

While Pro Tools is the main workhorse for Fort Knox, they admittedly limit themselves by running it as if it were still the year 2000 (running their Mac on OS 9). But, they attest, this hasn’t restricted what they’ve been able to conceive. In Raskin’s case, though having previous experience in more modern, established studios, the idea of painting the aural picture and mixing with 24 tracks is more than enough for him.

Concerning the approach to mixing at the Fort Knox camp, Raskin tells us, “When we mix drums, a lot of the programs and stock sounds, we approach like it’s another instrument in the mix. We’ll place things as if [they exist] in the real world. Panning the drums so the hi-hat appears all the way to the left; true-to-form panning that helps with the illusion of it being a real band playing, when in reality we’re composing the stuff in post a lot of the time. With the exception of the bass and guitar being performed together in a live scenario, it’s rare that any of the other instruments are actually tracked together.”

Using vintage amplifiers and assorted classic analog equipment goes a long way in aurally removing Fort Knox’s music from the electronic environment in which it’s being assembled. For example, a Peavey VC/L-2 Compressor Limiter inserts in the signal path for additional warmth before the sounds are dumped into the computer. At times, running the bass signal through a Tech21 SansAmp Acoustic DI bass guitar pedal is one of Fort Knox’s simple but effective techniques for fattening up their sound.

“The main thing with tracks that have the live instruments recorded first, be it a chord progression or a vocal part, is to make sure it’s being recorded to a click track,” says Myers. “Once we’ve quantified the BPM, got it on a grid, when we’re in Pro Tools, we’re very happy experimenting by moving things around. This allows us to play with the BPMs of other samples — take something that’s, say, at 85 BPM and throwing in a drum ’n’ bass loop that’s at 170 BPM.”

SAMPLE THIS

“When you play an instrument, your tonal resources are much less hindered,” says Jon Horvath, Fort Knox’s dancefloor-oriented, go-to man. “There’s nothing as good as someone sitting there running a guitar into a microphone. I don’t care what kind of computer they have or what kind of program they have, they’ll never be able to simulate that sound.”

Whether they’re using live samples or sound banks, Fort Knox’s approach is taking collected sounds and making them their own through strong-armed manipulation. “You have to use a little bit of everything to get a real feeling and real soul,” says Horvath. “Just doing it in your computer, it’s hard to achieve soul without having something live in there.“

Thunderball/Fort Knox figurehead Steve Raskin adds, “Regardless of the track, we start with live instrumentation in mind. Even though we may start with some canned sounds and loops, we make it a point to see beyond that from the get-go, so we start immediately and can add the more organic components to it. We are very rooted in the DJ culture — which is based on this rigid grid, but it’s important for us that our sounds exists between, or in, both worlds.”