Waves Of Change: Bike For Three!’s Joëlle Phuong Minh Lê on Maintaining the Element of Surprise

Bike For Three! is a long-distance love affair bound by a natural musical chemistry. But where most long-distance relationships are punctuated by occasional euphoric visits, this duo has never met—and may not ever.
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Belgian producer Joëlle Phuong Minh Lê (a.k.a. Greetings From Tuskan) and Canadian rapper Richard Terfry (a.k.a. Buck 65) originally paired up over e-mail to do one track for a mixtape, but the collaboration bloomed into a full-on project, resulting in Bike For Three!’s More Heart Than Brains [Anticon].

With titles such as “All There Is to Say About Love,” “First Embrace,” and “Let’s Never Meet,” More Heart Than Brains sounds as though it could be a concept album about a brewing love between the producer and rapper.

Whether part fact or total fiction, the way the album’s music and vocals interact adds an alluring air to the story.

Over the course of 15 tracks, Lê’s productions reveal stuttering vocals, motion-making arpeggios, pulsing atmospheric pads, and moments of intricate filigree. Nothing stays the same for long. Lê is conscientious in keeping each track moving, automating sounds up, down, in, out, and around.

“It is this combination of me not wanting to be bored with the sound and trying to shift attention of certain elements,” Lê says from her native Brussels. “At one point in a track, I like to bring up something to give it a little shine. I play a lot with the volume, or by opening a filter. It is funny to think of the sound doing his little solo and then disappearing in the crowd.”

Lê—who studied music theory, plays cello and piano, and produces her own electronic music—has plenty of musical experience under her belt. But one thing she wasn’t prepared for with Bike For Three! was working with a vocalist.

“A vocal takes a lot of attention away from little details,” Lê says. “That was something I had to get used to. Some tracks were so crowded with sounds and melodies, but I never removed them. I always tried to fix that mix-wise and give all the sounds their place around Buck’s voice. I sometimes made his voice sink in the mix—rather than float above the track—by adding a little bit of chorus or a very short delay to it.”

Lê records with a PC running Steinberg Nuendo and using VSTi synths such as Native Instruments Pro-53. “You can feel that NI really tried to emulate the synth and not make something with a thousand settings to get lost in,” she says.

On “MC Space,” for example, Lê took an ’80s-style bass sound and tweaked it to fit the mood. “I added a bit of noise to it and opened the filter quite a lot,” she says. “After that I cut a lot of mid to make it sound more bright, but keeping the lows.”

Lê also uses a late-’70s Korg keyboard that “doesn’t even have a name and smells like old wood,” she says. But her real secret weapon is her collection of music boxes—some she has kept from childhood, and others being recent flea-market purchases. She samples those boxes and then uses NI Kontakt to trigger sequences.

“Some parts have different versions, each with different parts looped,” Lê says. “I’ll start playing around while playing a beat, and little melodies come from there. Kontakt is great for that. The modulation possibilities are endless, and it really pays off to explore that and play around with your sounds.”

Lê records acoustic instruments with “crappy mics,” memo recorders, and a Shure SM57. There’s often background noise to contend with, but sometimes that’s a good thing.

“I noticed that all these recording flaws bring up little surprises when I start to transform the recordings. In the end, it does not matter if a xylophone was recorded clean and proper or primitively and dirty.”

Such is the case on “First Embrace,” which begins with a low, legato cello part and contrasting high-plinking notes from a music-box. Sounds that she thought were flaws of the music-box samples turned out to be something more.

“I was separating all the notes in Sony Sound Forge and removing the wind-up sounds and the sounds of the lid rattling,” Lê says. “I found out that the song was much more fun with these sounds left in, so I made separate samples of those, too. It was quite long work to not make it sound like a mistake, though. I EQ’d the rattling parts separately from the actual notes and only left the high frequencies of those sounds to make them merge with the notes.”

As for the cello on “First Embrace,” Lê cut up separate notes and drew a volume curve so that each note would get louder right after the attack. “That really gives a funny kind of late attack on the sound,” Lê says. “And EQ-wise, using the Waves REQ plug-in, I cut off all highs and boosted the mids, mostly to bring up the bow stroke.”

But one of Lê’s favorite sounds is the vibrato synth on “No Idea How.”

“It is a simple pulse with a super fast LFO on it,” she says. “It has a very slow portamento, which makes it really weird when playing very high notes. I just let it run and adjusted the vibrato using the mod wheel. When the note was jumping up, the combination of the portamento making it go to that high note and the full vibrato made it almost disappear into this squeaky sound.”

Lê also has some fun with Terfry’s vocals, as on “All There Is To Say About Love.”

“I added this vocoder line over him rapping, fading it in and out,” she says. “It’s like some robot is doing ad-libs. [Laughs.] I did that on the ‘Oh my God’ part. I cut the last word, stretched it, and added distortion after to hide that nasty time-stretching effect. It’s funny because he is doing that part live, actually, imitating the time stretch— studio tricks coming alive!”