Gypsy Kings: Major Lazer’s Diplo and Switch Trek From Studio to Studio, Making Dancehall for the Dancefloor

You hear the name Major Lazer and imagine pinpoint accuracy, but for Diplo and Switch—the semi-transient producers behind Major Lazer’s Guns Don’t Kill People . . . Lazers Do [Downtown]—putting together their album of digital dancehall collaborations was an exercise in straying offcourse to find fresh tones.
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Major Lazer began two years ago while Diplo was in Jamaica doing rough tracking for a funk project. Switch, who was nominated alongside Diplo for a Grammy for their 2007 collaboration on M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” came onboard shortly after, bringing with him a command of Logic 8 native plug-ins to complement Diplo’s love of Ableton Live 7 loops.

The shadowy entity known as Major Lazer then set sights on bringing together 19 vocalists for a lightheartedly militaristic take on dancehall music. Diplo and Switch took their laptops and Apogee Duets on the road, working between studios in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, London, New York, and Jamaica.

Initial content was tracked in Tuff Gong Studios in Jamaica, where inhouse engineers tracked session players and vocalists on a Sony MXP 3000 36-channel console and a Pro Tools|HD2 rig. Vocalists (Mr. Lexx, Vybz Kartel, and Ms. Thing, among others) were asked to do the same verse in two different styles, later to be tuned and treated in two different keys.

While on the island, the Major Lazer duo also went to the backyardshed studios of various vocalists, armed with a Røde NT2 mic.

“The NT2 is the best mic in its price range that you can carry, and you won’t be scared if it breaks, as it’s not the-end-of-the-world expensive,” Switch says. “Plus, I quite like that it is a little bottom heavy. I’d rather record with that in, and take it out later, than compensate for a thinner sound with EQ and compression.”

Bringing the sessions back to the former mausoleum in North Philly where his Mad Decent record label has its offices and studios, Diplo sat down in front of his Mac G5, Korg Kaossilator, Mackie Big Knob, and ADAM S3A monitors and tried to think outside the box while working in the box (using synths such as reFX Vanguard, Native Instruments Massive, and Rob Papen Predator and Albino 3).

Then, Switch reworked and remixed Diplo’s rough tracks in his similarly set up studio in Los Angeles. He used his secret weapon—an Avalon Vt-747sp Opto-Compressor-EQ—to make tracks sound less pristine.

“I didn’t want the album to sound like it came out of the box,” Switch says. “I wanted a slightly freer sound— especially for the vocals. And I love the fact that you have the option to add EQ pre- or post-compression.”

Later, more vocals were recorded in New York’s Downtown Music Studios. According to staff engineer Zach Hancock, artists with known vocal qualities were captured based on their strengths, such as Santigold with a Neumann M 149 Tube for punkish midrange, or Amanda Blank with the Manley Gold Reference for a “shiny, glossy, and glamorous” top end.

All the mics were routed through the Chandler LTD-1 EQ/preamp and Tube-Tech CL 1B compressor, into an Apogee AD-16/Pro Tools|HD setup. Hancock applauds the LTD-1’s stepped attenuator and rolled trim for dialing in a nice color that “sounds like a record immediately,” while the CL 1B reduces dynamic variation without sounding compressed, giving Digidesign’s fixed point environment more bit depth.

What impressed Hancock most about the Major Lazer project was how Diplo and Switch used the stock tools of Logic (Space Designer, for example) to maintain space and weight at the relative volume needed for such energetic music. Handling all manipulation and mixing duties in their DAWs, the duo would drag the X/Y of the Kaossilator all over a track such as “Pon De Floor,” or scuff up vocals with iZotope Trash and IK Multimedia AmpliTube, then shave bass frequencies off the distorted vocals, and mesh those sounds in with the beat. And they made more room for the vocals when needed.

“Many of the tracks are so beatdriven, with instruments taking up the frequency the vocal needs, so we did sidechaining on the vocals,” Switch reveals. “I’d have the drums in a bus, the music on another bus, and the vocals on another, but we’d run those two through a service bus with compression on that, and the music was sidechained to the vocal so that the vocal and music get recompressed and mixed in with the beats, gelling it together.”

Though Guns Don’t Kill People . . . Lazers Do is done and out the door, Diplo and Switch don’t consider the project complete. This first collection showed what they could do digitally, but they hope to revisit the material— and Jamaica—to work on dub versions, seeing what simple, custom boards and realtime frequency massage can bring to the mix. For Major Lazer, there’s always another mission.