Ten Of The Best: Headphones For Music Production
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“It exemplifies the relationship between aspiring, struggling artists… It’s a dedication to the people who might be unfortunate enough to love one of us.” Having delivered one of the strongest vocal house albums of the year, The Black 80s discuss their creative process.
As the Canadian duo of Hollis P Monroe and Overnite describe the way they make music, it becomes clear that this is not your typical working relationship. Although Overnite handles 99% of vocal duties, the boundaries between other roles aren’t so clearly defined: both are involved in the writing process, the production and the engineering, both write lyrics and melodies, but the specific division of labour changes with each track as the pair bounce ideas back and forth by email. If the process sounds convoluted, the end result certainly doesn’t: their debut album, Heart To Art, is personal, emotional and compelling.
Hollis and Overnite are clearly talented writers and producers, but Monroe is more than humble about the duo’s technical abilities, describing The Black 80s as “preset kings” and joking that he himself is “a pretty horrible engineer”. “In our productions, we tend to avoid getting too heavy into sound design or using lots of custom effects,” he explains. “Instead, we prefer to focus our efforts on the composition of the song itself.”
The duo’s label, Sonar Kollektiv, suggested enlisting their own Oliver Haertel to assist with the mixing and mastering process. “I was immediately attracted to the songs and I had a pretty clear vision of how the music should sound right from the start,” Oliver tells us. “Technically speaking, I did everything that was necessary to get the results I wanted. I re-recorded a lot of stuff through my outboard. I like the sound to be warm and fat but punchy at the same time. A broad palette of equipment was used, from my Moogerfoogers to my selection of tube equipment and reverbs… I was using everything. But all of that has no meaning if you don’t know where you want to go with the mix, which brings us right back to the beginning.”
The result is one of the most compelling vocal releases of the year, with a contemporary sound laced with echoes of classic deep house. Below, Hollis and Overnite talk us through how the album was written and produced.
Hollis: Everything was produced in the box with the exception of Overnite’s vocal rig, made up of a Blue Kiwi microphone matched with a Blue Robbie preamp running into a RME Fireface. Our songwriting process, in relation to the lyrics, is such that Overnite concentrates on the melodies and structure first and once we were cool with that, then I go back and re-write the lyrics when needed. As with most cool songs, this is one of those tracks that took no time at all. Done in one day, it’s clearly simple and straight forward and it just works. I started with this with a free ensemble for Reaktor called Plastikick by Jens Michaelis. The bass is from Massive, the drums are from Battery and the other synths are from multiple instances of the freeware synth Tyrell N6 by U-He. I sent what i thought would be a rough arrangement to Overnite and after he made one small but effective edit, he sent it right back to me with a vocal that worked perfectly.
Overnite: When Hollis sent me the instrumental version of ‘What You Say Now’, it was one of those times when the connection with the music is instantaneous. In fact, all of the vocals were taped live on that very same day. Every time I tried something else, I’d always came back to that first take. So that’s the one we used. I have to admit, this is one of my favourites.
Hollis: I’ve never discussed with Overnite the meaning of the lyrics but in my mind “pump up the volume” stems from my tendency to place musical parts way too low in the mix. I imagine that when he first received the demo, he couldn’t hear what the chords were doing. Inner musings and speculations aside, I would think it’s a not-so-subtle request for progress in a relationship. Basically, “let’s take things to the next level”.
Hollis: Even though we lived fairly close to one another, we didn’t actually work together in the same place at the same time on any of the songs in this project. All this was taking place over the internet, exchanging files for our ancient versions of Ableton and Logic Pro. This allowed for a low-pressure situation with no time constraints. Neither of us needed to be at our creative peaks at the same time. I think this overall approach turned out to be a strong factor in the development of The Black 80s’ sound and this album in particular.
Overnite: This one was made out of a sample as a starting point. I played with its pitch and frequencies to give it a melodic pattern. I just wanted to build an atmosphere around it. It basically is a repetitive pattern supporting the emotion carried by the character in this track. The bass plays a important role with its rhythmic pattern. It was made in Ableton Live and I used the synth SubBoomBass.
Hollis: I really love what Overnite did with the chorus here. The harmonies are reminiscent of Prince, which is always a good thing in my book. My first inclination was to attempt to re-write the verses but after listening to it more, I came to appreciate what I initially saw as disjointed thoughts. In the emotional context, it all makes sense to me, whether intentional or not.
Hollis: It might not be so obvious but this was inspired from me stumbling upon someone playing flamenco guitar. I’m vaguely approximating what I remember hearing with the Tyrell N6. It’s kind of loose because I couldn’t figure out how to get control over the modulation so I just left it as is. The subby tom toms come courtesy of SubBoomBass and the rest is a combination of Massive and the internal Logic synths.
Overnite: These vocals were originally done for another project that didn’t pan out. Hollis knew he could do something with them, and a little later sent me this lovely track. I really like where he brought it.
Hollis: Once I saw that the vocal worked with this new track, I reworked the lyrics based off of Overnite’s original thoughts and melody to recount a specific incidence of my ever-present performance anxiety about DJing. After playing it for a few people, I found out that I’m not the only one who goes through this. I suspect that this is one of the reasons so many of my peers self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. To suppress the fear.
Overnite: If I had to describe this one, it would be: the feeling you get when you walk on a nice summer night. A song of hope, I guess. It was made in Logic Pro using mostly samples for the drums. I used the V-station for the bass and Predator for some of the synths.
Hollis: Overnite came with this one and we ended up not changing much of anything from the demo version as I thought the track was exactly what it needed to be musically. The original lyrics that he sang, as he describes them, were essentially a song of hope. Melodically, I thought the vocal was great but I definitely thought we could take the theme in a different direction. So, keeping the hook and the melody, I twisted the verses into a narrative about using masturbation as a form of stress relief. Although it’s not an overly graphic description, the lyrics are fairly literal. All that being said, it could still be about a beautiful summer night…
Hollis: When Overnite sent his original sketch to me, I was immediately drawn to the hook and the quirkiness of some of the sound choices. Everything was being generated by Logic synths and it seemed to work quite well but I thought it could benefit from a more funked-up bassline and one more synth line. I wanted to keep it strictly Logic but the Plastikick ensemble again won out for kick drum duties. Initially, the lyrics as I interpreted them, were more about relationship problems but I had an idea to transform the subject matter. I injected a bit of dark humour to the spoken word verses so you’d hear one side of a dialogue where I, as some creepy character, am clumsily trying to seduce a girl that came to his band’s show. This happens to be the only time my voice appears on the album. It’s pitched down to give it a bit more of a creep factor and a completely different meaning to his excellent chorus.
Hollis: When Overnite sent this to me, I thought it was perfect. The vibe, the lyrics, the arrangement, everything. I also think it fits so well with the rest of the album while going in a fairly different direction from the other songs.
Overnite: It was a lot a fun doing this track and it came together quite quickly. I basically jammed on a loop I found messing with Logic Pro. I was happily surprised with where it was going and ended up finishing it the same day. I guess everything was there for me and it didn’t need much more. It’s a kind of progressive beat to slowly bang your head to. The main organ was made with Predator with an internal reverb to give it depth. The basis of the beat is the loop, to which I added drum samples.
Overnite: What I like about this song is that it’s made entirely from samples, except the vocals. It has a sort of jungle vibe to it, accentuated by the evolving flute samples. The samples come from a huge pool I’ve built over the years. I like the singularity of this song. It was made entirely in Ableton Live.
Hollis: From my perspective, this one is about the struggle common to most artists who are in pursuit of success that may never come. I see the lyrics as a self affirmation or mantra serving to remind us of why we got into this uncertain and unstable business.
Overnite: I fell in love with the music the minute I heard it. Dominik Marz and Yannick Labbé nailed it for us. All I had to do is find a melody for a very inspiring track. After a few tries, I ended up sticking with my first idea and had help from Hollis with the lyrics. I’d definitely listen to this one on a car ride.
Hollis: This is the only track on the album that features input from an outside source. It was done in Ableton Live with NI Komplete handling the synth duties. Specifically B4, Pro-53 and FM8 and, most surprisingly, the bassline is coming from Absynth. I generally don’t think of bass tones being one of Absynth’s strong points but they definitely made it sound rich and analogue. At first we wanted our album to just be the two of us and to use this for something else, but It was just too good not to be included. Lyrically, we’re speaking of love coming in layers. How someone can enter your uninspired life in the darkest of moments and open up your world, giving it new hope. And when this union results in a new life, we find an opportunity to experience redemption and new purpose.
Overnite: What I like about this one is the prominence of the percussion loop. It brings it to an interesting place sonically. I also used an organ throughout the track, which keeps it rather deep. The organ is from Predator and is treated with a filter to give it constant motion, both in frequencies and panning. I wanted to keep the bass subby and round, but also wanted it to be percussive, so I used SubBoomBass and found the perfect match for the track with very little modification.
Hollis: This was the last piece of the puzzle for the album. After listening to Overnite’s demo version for quite a bit, I loved the hook as usual and found the pad-ish organ quite poignant. It’s about holding on to your passion and remaining dedicated even when the situation gives you every reason not to.
Overnite: I really enjoy the drums on this song. They’re a blend of samples and drum machine. I also enjoy making my own samples, shakers for instance on this track. In terms of synths, I used a couple on this track. The main ones come from Logic itself. I also added some ABL2 and some SubBoomBass for colours. But what I also like about this track is its story. It basically tells the struggles of a musician.
Hollis: To me, this is the linchpin of the entire album. In fact, it was when I first heard this song that the whole concept of the album bloomed in my mind. It exemplifies the relationship between aspiring (and most times struggling) artists and it’s meant to be a dedication to the people who might be unfortunate enough to love one of us. From the support and inspiration we receive, we take what’s in our hearts and make it into art. Most times, this is all we have to offer.
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