Having made his name as a laptop musician (albeit a restless, unpredictable one whose aural scope has ranged from understated electronic pop to hardcore dance to jungle/breakcore), Depedro’s refusal to stagnate translates to his recording methods, which he says vary with each album. And for his latest, Pretty Girls Make Raves, the man behind the mix says he has returned to form in a sense, revisiting some of the analog components and old-school approaches from which he originally launched his career.
A REMIXING RETROSPECTIVE
From the critically acclaimed Don’t Sweat the Technics (concocted solely with a Macintosh and a Kurzweil J2000 sampler) to the über-processed breakbeat noise fest Down with the Scene, Depedro has taken equal inspiration from punk, funk, techno, and hip-hop while maintaining musical independence from any of his influences. Becoming well-known for his own work, and numerous collaborations with a host of renegade acts, it was Depedro’s bootleg remixes of Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” and other tracks by Elliott and NWA that are credited for the nearly unlawful amount of attention directed toward him — publicity which Depedro says in many cases was unwanted, simply because the work wasn’t truly his own.
“I was doing that right when it became really easy to do with DJ mixing software like Ableton,” he says. “I wasn’t doing it all by hand on tape, but I was doing it all by hand on a computer. It got so over-hyped, but it helped me so much at the time, and I never really got in trouble for it, which is pretty amazing. I was just young and didn’t care what happened. It was more about making a statement than trying to be on the cusp of some trend.”
For better or worse, those ripped up versions of rap and hip-hop caught people’s ears, which led to legitimate work for Kid606 as a remixer. He contributed to Reich Remixed, a collection of DJ remixes of original recordings by composer Steve Reich, before Mute Records contacted him to re-work some songs from Depeche Mode’s Exciter album in 2001. “It was insane,” he recalls, “I spent half of my time on remixes back then. It was wonderful to work with all of these individual parts of a song, to listen to 32 audio tracks and discover, ‘wow, there’s an organ hidden under the hi-hat.’ It taught me a lot about production, and helped me get where I am right now.”
GEAR UP AND DANCE
“I’m used to making really un-danceable music and really noisy, experimental art music, and this record is the most danceable thing I’ve done in some time,” Depedro says. “Lots of people think dance music is just made for DJs, or for dance mixes, and the songs don’t stand on their own. But most music now, if it’s not DJ’d or listened to as an album, is being mixed by other people . . . or you hear one song on a blog or something. So the actual setting is less important, and it’s more acceptable for dance music to serve as a tool.”
But when it comes to the tools that drive the tools, Depedro works on three Macintosh computers: A dual processor desktop, 17-inch Powerbook, and a MacBook — running Logic Audio Pro 7.2 as his main platform. “It works seamlessly with my external hardware,” he says. “I’ve been using Logic for years, and I’m still discovering new things.” But despite Logic’s seemingly infinite capabilities, the creative opportunities that exist outside of the box presented more of a challenge. “I spent so much time in front of a computer as a composition tool, I became less interested in using it as an instrument,” he says. “If I’m using the computer as a studio, I’d rather use external instruments, like guitar, bass, and analog synth.”
Save for his Dave Smith Evolver synthesizer, Depedro got rid of most of his MIDI gear, but hung on to most of his analog synths and drum machines — this time around, at least. For Pretty Girls, he turned to vintage synths such as the Korg MS-20, ARP 2600, and Roland TB-303, as well as a Roland TR-606 drum machine — a near-relic. “This forced me to put in a little more work,” he says of his analog toolbox. “Computers allow you to be so lazy.”
Depedro employs an Encore Expressionist eight-channel MIDI-CV converter, which works in conjunction with Logic’s automation system, to control his pre-MIDI synths via computer. Rather than rely on Logic’s vast assortment of effect plug-ins, he tends to work with guitar amps, delay pedals, homemade distortion boxes, and random “old stuff” borrowed from friends. “With all of the plug-ins that come with Logic, people can go crazy processing music. I took the more conservative approach.”
WE’RE ALL ANALOG ON THE OUTSIDE
On “Let it Rock,” one of eight densely layered tracks, he runs electronics through a ZVex Fuzz Factory guitar pedal, which, combined with the computer, creates a pounding rhythm that’s far different than anything ever created with an electric guitar. For other grating blips and ricocheting synth lines, he uses the Sequential Circuits Pro 1 and/or the Korg MS-20. “The oscillators drift and they have their own tone,” he says. “I’ll record a track that’s just clean, then I’ll record another track on top of that that’s panned to the other side, where I’m turning the knobs and changing the settings of the synthesizer while the song is going. You can do that now with automation, but I still think it’s more fun to use the actual synthesizers.”
GOING BACK IN
Depedro also takes a less traveled road when building loops and samples, shying away from Logic’s audio library and instead creating his own sound beds. “I modulate loops a lot — I’ll create [a loop] and then subtract elements so that it’s not so repetitive.”
Another authentic (and rare) addition to Pretty Girls Make Raves is in the assignment of vocals. Depedro has recorded his own voice only a handful of times in the past, but would never call himself a singer. Rather than belting out any sort of traditional verse/chorus/bridge, the voice in this case becomes just another sound to twist and torture, often distressed to resemble the distorted punk sound of Skinny Puppy’s Dave Ogilvie or Ministry’s Al Jourgensen — an effect he says is accomplished by running an old ’70s vocoder shifted internally in Logic. The vocals are then processed (along with all the drums) through the ARP 2600 filters, as well as a Sherman Filter Bank. Of course, the secret weapon for warmth, as Depedro confesses, comes in the form of the Avalon VT-737 channel strip, which he runs “just about everything through” before getting totally in the box . . . and out of his mind.
AN (IM)PERFECT CIRCLE
Along his way to Pretty Girls Make Raves, Depedro says he’s learned the importance of the human element in various stages of the recording process, even in a medium that relies so heavily on machines. “It’s much more about what you put in the box than what you get out,” he says. “People have the idea that they can put together some quick song in Garageband, and it can be a single. Obviously, for Apple’s marketing purposes, they want you to think that. But at the same time, even with these professionally-recorded loops and all these preset sounds, you still have to find a way to mix them. The most important thing is to not get lazy with any material you’re recording.”
For an artist such as Depredo, who has enough stiff competition from himself alone, going back to the basics without becoming basic is what it took to keep him, and his listeners, from feeling lazy when listening to his music. “This record was really just about putting the fun back in electronic music, doing things quickly, and having less song structure, more repetitive elements. There’s definitely a lighter way to make this music, and a more scientific and professional way; I think it’s best to explore both because, after all, not all people like perfectly recorded music.”
Heather Johnson is a San Francisco-based independent journalist. Pay her a visit at www.out-word-bound.com.