But this is not at all due to flakiness: Working hard is not something Keyes shies away from, especially in the studio. From his Austin, TX, roots in the band Revolver onward, Keyes has recorded numerous “types” of music before deciding to strip everything down to its simplest elements, only to rebuild singer/songwriter-crafted tunes into electronic-laden symphonies of sound.
Yes, on Too Young, Keyes decided to start unplugged and track upwards — translating the purely acoustic into the ethereal electronic. “I’ve been making guitar music since I was a kid,” says Keyes. “I wanted to approach things differently. I got super into Daft Punk, Air, M83, Phoenix, weird French music, bands that use a lot of electronics.”
Transposing strums into synths (Keyes lists Korg’s MicroKorg and Roland’s JV-1000 as his two go-to hardware synthesizers), sequencing and sampling on the grid via Pro Tools by way of the Digidesign Digi 001, and then further manipulating these sounds with the ProSoniq Orange Vocoder and SampleTank 2 plug-ins, Keyes and partner Rory Philips reinterpreted material tested live with little more than guitar and voice through a technological screen. “[Keyes] would bring in something on acoustic, but already know the sound he wanted,” says Phillips on the subject of translating while tracking Keyes’ songs on the pre-Too Young demos. “Usually the attack or mood of the parts reflected that sound in some way so it was easy to translate. It wasn’t a matter of him bringing in a folk song and me turning it into a dance jam. He was writing dance hits on acoustic. It was his writing apparatus. I was translating them into what he was already hearing in his head.”
“Almost any traditional instrument would go through some processing,” says Phillips, making mention of the infectious guitar solo on the high energy hit “Discotech” — a signal manipulated by sending an acoustic guitar through a Moog modular. “We both come from rock backgrounds. Doing more straightforward guitar recording wasn’t in either of our interests. Lots of filtering, effects, editing helped to keep us from feeling bored and in that rut again.”
But after painstakingly electrifying every song, once it came time to record the proper version of Too Young, Keyes decided to shift back. “Live, I didn’t want it to be standing there singing to a pre-recorded track,” Keyes says. “The demos were so electronic it would have been really difficult to reproduce without working with a computer on stage. I didn’t want to go that route. Live I wanted it to be more like a rock band, so I had to learn to track this like a rock band.”
Calling upon Young Love’s Robert Mann, Keyes did some quick scratch tracks all on “traditional instruments” — tossing the drum machine aside and recording all the bass parts dry, and putting the Moogerfoogers in the closet before heading off to Moles Studio in Bath, UK, to work with producers/engineers Steve Osborne and Damian Taylor.
A duo matched for Keyes’ multiple musical personality disorder, Taylor matched the old-school training Osborne underwent while recording some of the earliest rave and dance music known to man with his new approaches as a cutting-edge programmer. Says Taylor: “Most often we’d work against [Keyes’] vocals and any strong character parts from the original recordings, like a melody line or a riff. The songs were in pretty good shape as demos. [Osborne] would react to what he heard, follow his gut, and start trying stuff. He’d often do a lot of heavy treatment through the SSL 4056 E, severely EQing and compressing some channels while gating others and then running them back out through synths like his [EMS] VCS3 or my Korg MS-20.”
Sounds a bit reckless? Over every song Keyes’ vocals go through various echoes, distortions, and what sounds like harmonizing with himself along with tracks taken from the original demos with Phillips, which were cut with a Sony C37P into an API 512 Discrete Mic/Line Pre (with limiting courtesy of Digidesign’s Bomb Factory Fairchild 660 plug-in before the mix).
Enhancing the live demo tracks soon became the name of the game, regardless of whether they were effected or not, with Osborne and Taylor bringing out a Minimoog (“for the bottom end”), a Roland Jupiter-8 (“chords, pads, arpeggios”), a Doepfer Modular, and Taylor’s prized MS-20 — whose external trigger saw a good share of the action in firing rhythms.
This is most noticeable on “Discotech” where the washy pads in the chorus were taken by Osborne, played through the Roland Jupiter-8 and Doepfer Modular, then added together with the Orange Vocoder strings on top before being bused together and compressed through a sidechain input. According to Phillips, “By sending a click on the downbeat to the sidechain it created an upbeat swell effect that really helped tighten things up but still had the synth-y wash we wanted.”
For “Tell Me,” which started as an R&B tune centered around a piano, beat, and vocal, things progressed a bit differently. “We tried recording some drums and an electric guitar playing the chords but it was pretty difficult to find the extra direction for the track,” says Taylor. “I grabbed a few of the guitar and drums parts [Osborne] had liked, gave them a little tweak on timing and placement, then pulled the original elements of the recording into Ableton Live. I started by replacing the bass end of the piano with some synths and a couple of samples so that I could turn off the piano and open up the possibilities for the track, while still keeping its harmonic structure intact. Then I pretty much threw the kitchen sink at that track, taking the approach that I’d give [Osborne] a huge library of sounds to work with.
“When we all got back together everything moved incredibly fast. [Osborne] did a bit of a rebalance of the live drums and the guitars, then dived into everything that I had lined up for him. He very quickly programmed up the analog drum machine type part you hear on the verses, then he just instinctively auditioned and chose the different parts I had given him. It was one of those classic cases of finding the right backspin for a track, giving it that little twist to set it apart. [Osborne] was able to really enhance the mood of the track, give it the right dynamics, through his selection of all the elements everyone had contributed, from [Keyes’] vocal and the original chords he did with [Phillips], to [Mann’s] guitars and drums, my weird bits, and his extra beats.”
Keyes credits the duo with really helping him flesh out the album creatively. As he reflects: “The demos sounded like cheap Daft Punk with vocals, but with not as much money behind them. You need people to help fill in all the stuff that I would not know how to do personally. One day maybe I’ll know how to program and engineer and work with all those crazy boxes. Right now, [I’m] trying to focus on the vision.”