Pretty Lights Breaks Down 'A Color Map of the Sun' Sessions

Make no mistake about it: Derek Vincent Smith is Pretty Lights.
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Make no mistake about it: Derek Vincent Smith is Pretty Lights.
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Make no mistake about it: Derek Vincent Smith is Pretty Lights. The first credit on the new Pretty Lights album, A Color Map of the Sun, reads: “All songs written, composed, sampled, mangled, reconstructed, flipped, chopped, and arranged by Derek Vincent Smith.”

If you’ve heard any of Pretty Lights’ previous releases, you know what an amazing polyglot of sonic ideas Smith is capable of creating—skittering samples collide with devastating drops and passages of unreal grace and beauty, then are overwhelmed by distortion and indescribable weirdness that take songs to a new level.

Smith has made each of his albums available free over the Internet, and undoubtedly helped build his ever-growing following that way. But it’s fair to say that it is his incredible live performances that have catapulted him into the top echelon of EDM artists. Smith masterfully mixes and manipulates an astonishing, variegated array of samples plucked from records of every era, sometimes backed by a drummer and accompanied by a mind-blowing light show. Over the past five years, Pretty Lights has played just about every major U.S. festival there is, electronic or otherwise: Coachella, Bonnaroo, All Good, Electric Zoo, Outside Lands, Electric Daisy Carnival, Wakarusa, Electric Forest, Lollapalooza, and on and on.

This summer, the schedule is packed with more multi-act festival dates across North America and, increasingly, Pretty Lights is occupying slots as headliner or spotlighted second act. No question about it, Pretty Lights is still ascending, and the strength and musical diversity Smith displays on A Color Map of the Sun (released July 2 as free download and in various pay formats) is certain to attract legions of new fans.

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It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. The Colorado native, who still calls Denver home and has a studio there, is relentlessly upbeat and optimistic, and the joy he gets from creating and performing music courses through everything he does. Growing up an hour north of Denver in Fort Collins, Smith played in a punk band and then in a funky hip-hop guitar-bass-drums trio (“trying to be the Beastie Boys and 311 with a little Korn on top,” he once explained) during his high school years. In the early 2000s, he gravitated to the local hip-hop, electronic and rave scenes, while at the same time landing a job as an engineer at a recording studio in Fort Collins.

On the side, he started developing his own style of music, artfully layering electronically altered samples from mostly obscure vinyl sources, along with live and programmed beats, synths, voices, and other textures. A true musical omnivore, he drew from a staggering range of artists to create his pieces: On the first Pretty Lights album, 2006’s Taking Up Your Precious Time, Smith included samples from such eclectic acts as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Etta James, Fairport Convention, McCoy Tyner, Aaron Neville, Ella Fitzgerald, and the Chamber Bros. And with each successive release, he drew from more varied sources—Sting, Led Zeppelin, Radiohead, Nirvana, Buffalo Springfield, Al Green, O.V. Wright, Firefall, the O’Jays, Shirley Bassey, John Denver, and a host of names from the rap/hip-hop era, from Tupac to Eminem to Jay-Z. No one was safe! Even the Pretty Lights name has its foot in another era: It came from a poster for a 1966 New Year’s Eve concert in Manchester, England, featuring The Move, The Who, and Pink Floyd—“Come and watch the pretty lights,” it exhorted.

“In this [EDM] scene right now,” Smith says, “most producers came from a DJ background, and then there are a handful of producers who came from a musician background. I definitely came from that musician background, and I got into production through hip-hop because I was a massive hip-hop fan and obviously hip-hop production was very heavily sample-based, so my productions started off going down that route. But since I was also a musician, it has always been a fusion of live instrumentation and sampling. I viewed my style as sort of a collage of music of the last century brought together with techniques and production from the present, to create something new and fresh. I really pushed to take sampling to a new level, so all my old records are collages that have 20, 30 samples in a single track, seriously manipulated and with other instruments added to make it even more musical.”

Two years in the making, A Color Map of the Sun represents a radical shift in the way Smith creates his music. This time around, he didn’t use any samples from other artists’ records. “I never had any notion that I produced with samples because I couldn’t produce with newly recorded music,” he explains. “I produced with samples because it had this warmth and grit I liked and because you can hear the time period, whether it’s the ’60s and ’70s, or the ’20s and ’30s, for that matter. But I got it in my head that I could literally re-create the recording process that would have been done in the late ’60s and early ’70s to make the sounds have the timbre that I was really going for. So I set boundaries for myself that made it extremely difficult, but in a fun, challenging way, where I didn’t want to use anything that was current, or even an emulation of something old. I wanted to use all gear that was in fact vintage, from the mics and the board to all the hardware.”

Okay, that’s a quaint idea, but not exactly groundbreaking—many folks are using vintage gear to record these days. But wait, there’s more; lots more. And because the process ended up being so complex and multifaceted, ranging from seriously old-school analog techniques to the latest digital devices, Smith needed a tech partner to help him realize his vision. Enter Joel Hamilton.

Hamilton is co-owner (with Tony Maimone, of Pere Ubu fame) of Studio G in Brooklyn, which is packed to the gills with choice vintage and newer analog gear—starting with a Neve 5316 console originally built in 1977 for BBC Scotland. (Yes, the studio also has some digital pieces, but for this project Smith and Hamilton tapped its analog resources exclusively.) As a producer, engineer, and/or mixer, he has worked with such artists as Sparklehorse, Howie Day, Dub Trio, Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, and perhaps most famously, the BlakRoc rock-rap hybrid featuring the likes of the Black Keys, Wu Tang’s RZA, Mos Def, Raekwon, Q-Tip, and others. Also a multi-instrumentalist, Hamilton has brought a number of his own group projects into Studio G, as well, including The Working Title and Book of Knots.

“I think my initial point of contact with Derek, which was probably about two-and-a-half years ago, was that I had worked with Lettuce and Soulive and all these people he’d looked up to in the funk realm,” Hamilton says. “And he’d had Adam Deitch, the drummer, playing with him a few tours, and I’d done things with Talib Kweli and a few others that had Adam on them. Adam knew that my record collection would make sense to Derek, when I could reference anything from the Ohio Players to The Beatles to Funkadelic. It’s really hard if you don’t have the vernacular when you’re jumping around stylistically the way somebody who digs through crates [of vinyl records] can jump and feel comfortable going from a Metallica record to the weirdest off-brand Allen Toussaint thing from ’72 that nobody really knows. We had a lot of the same reference points, so that sped things up incredibly and we really hit it off quickly, based on that and a mutual love for f**king with sounds, basically.”

Smith’s concept was that he would create his own library of vinyl recordings from scratch, assembling groups of musicians at Studio G and directing them to play “breaks” that captured specific moods and feelings that recalled some of the older styles he loves so much.

“Nothing had been created, no ideas had even been toyed around with,” Smith says. “I just knew I wanted to record with as many musicians as possible. So that happened first and it was all done to stereo tape. It’s funny, because when I called [Studio G] and said I wanted to do it to tape, they had their 2-inch 24-track Studer tape machine ready to go, and I was like, ‘No, I must have miscommunicated. I want to use the [Otari MTR-15] quarter-inch stereo tape machine and run it on 7.5 ips so we’re really getting into emulating a garage recording studio in the ’60s in Detroit or Cleveland or some place like that.’ They said, ‘Are you sure? You won’t be able to change it later.’ I said, ‘Yes, I want it to be very destructive,’ which in an audio sense means you can’t go back and change it.

“There were no demos. I had a Wurlitzer and a small Virus Polar polyphonic synth so I could come up with chord progressions on the fly and bring it to the musicians, one at a time. I would literally go to the guitar player and say, ‘All right, strum D-minor,’ and he’d strum that, and then I’d say, ‘Okay, now add the 9th. Now strum it slower; now finger it up on this register. No, strum it up instead of down. A little faster.’ He’d finally get the strum and the chord exactly how I wanted it and I’d say, ‘Great! Stop, remember that. Stick with that.’ Then I’d go through the same process with the keyboard player on the Hammond and Wurly, the other guitar player, the horn players, and the bass player. A lot of times I would play bass, too, so we’d have two basses.

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“Simultaneously I’d be working with the engineer to get the effects right and the amps right. We did everything in the same room, with no isolation, so the guitar amp was getting drum bleed on purpose and the Leslie mic was getting bass amp bleed and kick drum bleed. We were not looking to have 64 tracks on Pro Tools all separated out perfectly clean,” he laughs. “What I was trying to compose were parts of genres, parts of songs, part of records that if I were to find them in an old record store, I would flip out, immediately rush home and want to chop them up. I was trying to create that in a long list of genres from a long list of time periods.

“Finally we’d arrive at something,” Smith continues, “and when everything sounded right, I’d say ‘Roll tape!’ A lot of times it would take a minute or two for everyone to fall into the groove, so there aren’t real start and stop points on most things. The sessions and the breaks lasted anywhere from five minutes, if it was really simple and we nailed it right away, to literally 30 minutes long. And the reason it might last 30 minutes is I wanted to get all these different combinations of instruments. I wanted to get Wurlitzer with just slide guitar; I wanted to get wah and slide and piano; I wanted to get upright and harmonics and wah. So I was directing people to drop in and drop out, sort of conducting it.”

From Hamilton’s perspective, the pre-session work involved copious experimentation with mics, amps, and outboard gear to come up with the correct sonic palette for each break. Then, as he mixed live to the 2-track, there was a lot of “diving for the faders” on the Neve to bring instruments up and down and apply various effects in the moment. “You start to hear the gesture come at you from the rhythm section and you respond accordingly with your fingers and your brain,” he says. “You’re part of the feedback loop that is improv. Just like the musicians, Derek would hear me start to ride up some weird little effect and he’d be like, ‘Yup, hold that there.’ The same way, on the talkback he’d be telling the drummer, ‘Stay with that, I like that ghost note thing.’ Everyone’s finding their place and I’m finding the sound that works with them finding their place, and it was exciting because the focal point was Derek. It would have been chaos if there wasn’t somebody I had faith in to take charge of the room and actually produce. Derek always seemed to have a clear vision of where to go with this.”

The group recordings at Studio G stretched over many sessions, involved 20 musicians and singers at different times, and a whole bunch of instruments one rarely encounters in this era, including the nyckelharpa (a Swedish fiddle), trumpet violin, music box, toy piano, Marxophone (a fretless zither), harmonium, and waterphone. Smith played a number of these instruments himself.

“My first two-and-a-half-week session in Brooklyn, Joel had a massive modular synth, and we used it for effect chains,” Smith says. “We would patch up filters and distortions and then use them as auxiliary effect chains through his modular synth. So on one of the breaks, there’s a vibraphone and you can hear that the vibraphone has a filter LFO on it, and that’s because we ran the vibraphone mic through the modular, and I was running the modular live while the dude was playing. But through that first session, I so fell in love with analog modular synthesis, and I feel my ears really learned the lesson and could hear the difference between what my Virus sounded like when I just played a saw waveform and what the modular sounded like when I played a saw waveform. So that’s when I made the decision to make even the synthesis aspects of the record completely analog and modular. I built a big old modular synthesizer that I had to teach myself to use, and I used that for everything monophonic, and then I also purchased a polyphonic Dave Smith Prophet for the chord synthesis.”

Another set of sessions at Piety Street Studios in New Orleans—engineered by Wesley Fotenot and featuring local musicians tackling other grooves and textures using the Brooklyn methodology—produced many more hours of raw recordings. There was also a day spent recording just drummer Adam Deitch at Studio G—his work is as prominent as any other element on the finished album.

“The idea was to emulate those Drum Crazy CDs of old drum samples,” Smith says. “So we had 12 vintage mics on the drum kit, but we would only use, at max, three or four at a time. Sometimes we’d use two, sometimes only one. Joel and I would be in the control room and he would tweak all the hardware and the preamps and I would play around with whichever mics we were using, and we would get it to sound like it was a different break from a different studio, and I had a mic to the Adam’s headphones and I’d tell him what beats to play. I’d click off the tempo and say, ‘Okay, I want a hip-hop breakbeat with minimal hi-hat, with only snare fills.’ So he’d do that for a minute. Then I’d say, ‘Now do this tempo, and I want it to be double-handed 16ths, no hi-hat, minimal toms with a lot of swing.’ We did that for six hours or so and ended up with around 60 different drum beats that I could cut up and use however I wanted.

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“On the produced album, Color Map of the Sun, it’s a combination of the drums from the actual recording involving the musicians, the drums from just the recordings of the drummer, and I would also add sequenced kick and snare to really make it hit hard.”

After the raw recording sessions, which also encompassed various specialized stabs at capturing horns, strings, rappers, and singers (Smith wrote the sung lyrics, or “re-imagined” ones from old gospel and folk records), “I had boxes and boxes of quarter-inch tape and I went to a vinyl guy and I said, ‘I want all of this tape put on acetates,’” Smith says. “And he said, ‘You’re f**ing insane!’ He was used to putting albums or EPs on acetate, and I’m sitting here with 40 hours of music, two different times. He did it because I paid him for it, but he thought I was crazy at first.”

In the end, Smith had close to 100 session acetates from which to sample and that was the start of the next phase of the project. “Derek took everything back to Colorado and that’s really where he made the record,” Hamilton says. The 2-track recordings became the foundational elements for the songs Smith constructed for A Color Map of the Sun. Just as he would when sampling off other peoples’ records, he loaded bits and pieces of seemingly unconnected parts of the different original breaks into Ableton Live 8, figured out an arc for the piece, and then went to town, chopping and layering and adding effects and more modular synths.

 “I used a custom-made [Akai] MPC 2000XL to sequence my modular synth, but for cutting up my vinyl to sample and arrange it, I simply used the ‘Arrangement View’ in [Ableton] Live or Drum Rack; I love Drum Rack! I use other stuff now, like Sampler and all the NI [Native Instruments] stuff and UAD-2 [plug-ins], but for the album I just used good-old-fashioned slicing and warp pins straight in Arrangement mode.”

Hamilton says, “It’s in Derek’s soul to work that way—the tactile manipulation of the record is so important: the way he’ll search for the next part by dropping the needle in different places, rather than going through what basically amounts to file management in Pro Tools or Ableton. The basic process was acetate to Ableton and then f**king with it.”

“When you dig through records for samples, things are rarely in the same key and never in the same tempo, so you have to utilize a certain skillset to match up those samples,” says Smith. “So, for example, I had purposely recorded some of the vocals in a way where they were not supposed to go together. I would write a lyrical phrase and I would have one of the singers sing it and I would have planned this lyric to be on, say, song A, but I would have the singer sing the lyrics over break C, which was a totally different tempo and different key, because I wanted to emulate the process of matching samples. I did that so my vocals were not in key with the music, so I would have to manipulate them to make them fit. It was another part of trying to maintain the style of sample collage production, even though I wasn’t sampling anyone else’s music.”

“He took it to a level that made it really fun for me,” Hamilton notes. “I’d say, ‘Man, you’ve got to check out this filter, you’ve got check out this Harvest Man module—it really f**ks up your song!’ And he would come back at me with some track that was all that module. He’d say, ‘I really got into this and made it talk to Ableton, but then stayed analog, so it’s a free-running sequence, and then I re-chopped it.’ He was really going after it. All great stuff starts with a vision and then the tools just become a way to pursue that vision. Derek has got vision for days.”

Smith did preliminary mixing at his studio, monitoring the sessions through a Dangerous 2-Bus and utilizing an analog sum box, then sent stems to Hamilton at Studio G, “and he would sort of reprint the stems through some more tubes and old hardware and comp them down, send them back to me, and I’d make all the volume changes I wanted so everything sounded right,” says Hamilton. “Then I flew back to New York and actually bounced all that through his equipment—through the Fairchild 670 and through the Neve, as well. After I finished the songs and bounced up the stems, the files were sitting in Pro Tools, but they weren’t mixed with Pro Tools. Maybe once or twice we used volume automation on Pro Tools on the mixing sessions, but it was 98 percent done with hardware changes and compressor gain changes and things like that.”

Hamilton mixed on Studio G’s SSL 8048 G+ “because there were like two trazillion tracks, so I needed to be able to lay it all out,” he says. “SSL is a sort of neutral platform for me to be able to patch in something here from 1955 and the channel sounds like an old Federal compressor, or the 670, or the Duquesne limiter, a Maxson tube limiter that was made for the Department of Aeronautics—tube gear that is really obscure at this point; running things through attenuators and UTC transformers almost in a musique concrète way, where you just run the signals though something static to create texture. The SSL can feel a little bit like Pro Tools 3D sometimes, where it doesn’t really do much to the sound, but every single overload light is on, blinking at me all day long. We were kicking the crap out of it. That’s a big part of the aesthetic. It should sound like the process can’t handle how big it is, in certain ways, and then it should also sound like the process has more headroom than anything when the bass drop happens.”

The end-result of all this is an incredibly diverse album that brilliantly juxtaposes phat beats, crunching rock riffs, wheedling and buzzing analog synths, elegant soul grooves, bursts of hot jazz, psychedelic guitar, haunting quiet passages that seem to float in air, and a surprising number of truly catchy hooks. That all these elements work together as well as they do is testimony to Smith’s vision and skill—it really does feel like many different eras simultaneously, at the same time it is completely contemporary and even forward-looking.

One of the cooler aspects of the release, too, is that Smith has put together a second disc containing excerpts from 13 of the untitled live-in-the-studio sessions in Brooklyn and New Orleans, in effect sharing some of the base elements and letting us hear where this or that part of one of the finished songs came from. As Hamilton says, “The fact that Derek is bold enough to present the world with the raw materials that he was using shows a genuine enthusiasm for the art of making music that’s sadly absent in so many other genres right now. That’s incredible to me.” A documentary about the making of the album is also forthcoming. Naturally, A Color Map of the Sun is also available on vinyl. (Check out for the wide range of options.)

And then, of course, a lot of these songs will be coming to stage near you. “It’s going to be huge live; pummeling, but in the best way possible,” Hamilton says with a laugh. “I was on the stage at the Governor’s Island Festival here in New York City when one of the songs we worked on came on and the bass drop was just ridiculously gigantic. I watched in awe as 30,000 23-year-olds found God when that bass drop hit. Every light came on—because he has 4 zillion lights—and it was like every face as far as the eye could see was in disbelief and happiness and total euphoria. It’s like paying for an ogre to shake you!”

Blair Jackson is a contributing editor at Electronic Musician.