DJ Fresh has production abilities that have been cemented for a long while in the global drum ‘n’ bass community, but for the last couple of years, he has been forging a solo path— resulting in the recent release Escape From Planet Monday.
Gnarly basslines and machine gun beats have long been Fresh’s signature, but Escape is all about a broadening range. Featuring collaborations with the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant and DJ Shadow, Escape draws from an interesting drum ‘n’ bass palette but provides songs that are much more multi-faceted than anything he’s previously created.
Assembled in Fresh’s closet-sized home studio, the album’s live elements (saxophone, flutes, vocals) were recorded in far away locales (New Zealand, for example) and sent back to him via the Internet. Using Native Instruments’ Kontakt to construct a preset with all the beats cut and assigned on keys, Fresh later mixed MIDI files sent by DJ Shadow with live cuts to thicken his patented sound — a trick he had originally discovered while producing the Pet Shop Boys.
“I’ll use CMT Bitcrusher or TC Electronic Powercore Assimilator to make a live sound fit,” he says. “You can take a horn sound you got off a record, create a horn sound with a synth, then use Assimilator to match the EQ of the one you are playing with the one off the record.”
For Escape, Fresh toggled between an Apple Macintosh G5 and a prototype custom-built Carillon dual 3.6 Intel Zion PC, which he matched with numerous plug-ins; each with a particular quality he desires. For example, the Blue 1.5 (used to create the guitar sound on “Pink Panther”) for “its capabilities with editing synth parameters and automating them with a modulation matrix that allows assignation of anything you need,” Spectrasonics Atmosphere for “pads and strings,” z3ta for “arpeggiated old-school, to blaring bleed, synth sounds” (used on “Funk Academy” and “Throw”), Sony Oxford’s EQ for “its warm thickness,” and Glitch, which Fresh refers to as an “Aphex Twin” plug-in (“It automatically turns whatever you put through it into crazy syncopated stutters, time-stretches, and filters you can create your own pattern with.”) For compression and limiting, he likes Waves’ transparent, neutral characteristic, which “doesn’t add color to what’s already there.”
“On that tip, I also used Melodyne on a couple of tracks,” says Fresh. “You can get a certain kind of pitch correction with Melodyne that’s like an effect. If you overuse it, it’s got an interesting effect. You get different effects from using Antares Auto-Tune 4 to do a similar thing to correct the pitch of a vocal. Kontakt also has a feature that lets you take out all the harmonic information for a sample then play the notes back in yourself. You can use a vocoder to do a similar thing.”
Fresh used these on the Neil Tennant-vocalized “Throw” where he put it through Melodyne, Auto-Tune, Kontakt, then vocodes it in different combinations to get over-the-top vocal pitching effects. The vocoder is also used on “Funk Academy,” where Fresh tries a new way he’s found for getting around the vocoder distorting the words to the point of incomprehension.
“If you put the vocal through Kontakt, it ends up semi-compressing it as part of that process,” he explains. “It takes away all of the pitch information, which makes the vocoding process work a lot better. You can really hear the syllables.”
Escape was sequenced using Steinberg Nuendo 3, which Fresh finds has a good mix of Apple Logic’s MIDI and Pro Tools’ audio. “You can change a piece of audio by selecting it in the arrangement page and transposing without having to load up plug-ins or a separate pitch-shifting window,” he explains. “It will show you the division of the bars at the tempo of the track along the piece of audio as a grid. You can move the bars in order to time stretch that section of the audio independently from the piece of audio as a whole, move it along until it fits onto the grid.”
Part of the reason why the end result comes across as so organic is due to Fresh’s preliminary compositional approach. “I decided what I wanted to encompass sound-wise on the album and set about casually trying to make tracks that fit each of those descriptions. From the underground drum ‘n’ bass point of view, it would have been much easier not to have done that. But then it would have lost the important thing, which was to get an album that flows from start to finish.”