Scott Hardkiss - From Turntables to Tape Reels

In a DJ’s career, the “artist album” is a milestone. It’s what happens when you’ve amassed enough popularity and skills to cut a record of original tracks, often in tighter pop song formats than usual—let other DJs remix them into

In a DJ’s career, the “artist album” is a milestone. It’s what happens when you’ve amassed enough popularity and skills to cut a record of original tracks, often in tighter pop song formats than usual—let other DJs remix them into long-form club fare and thereby pay homage. The best such albums, at least to readers of this magazine, have no shortage of analog synths, funky chops, and melodic hooks. The best of the best sound like Technicolor Dreamer, the labor of love of Scott Hardkiss. Stylistically, it swings from Daft Punk to P-Funk, from four on the floor to groove on the one. Sonically, an almost total reliance on vintage synths and tracking to analog tape make for a warmth and fidelity you almost never hear in any pop music anymore, let alone electronic dance music. I visited Scott in New York City and learned the secret to TD’s inimitably infectious sound: In his heart, he’s really a keyboard player.

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 Interview continues after these online extras.

You began making this record not long after September 11, 2001. Your home studio was very near ground zero in lower Manhattan. What was that like?
Besides the obvious, horrific tragedy of the whole thing, just on the dayto- level, it was a giant, horrible construction zone. I’d be trying to cut vocals and they’d be demolishing buildings right across the street. It was crazy.

Was your studio functional right after the attacks?
At first there was no power and no water. There was smoke in the air for six months. But I did stay. It was my neighborhood—a lot of people who lived there felt strongly about staying. I’d just moved back to New York for a whole new start, and landed in this chaos. So when it came time to make the record, I really wanted to make something uplifting.

The opening track, “Come On, Come On” has a very life-affirming message: “Keep on going until we’re gone.”
I worked hard on writing that. Lisa Shaw, who sang it with me, encouraged me in that direction. Instead of doing this really moody, heavy album, I wanted to make something beautiful in the middle of all that horror. My response was to go back to the music I grew up loving and reconnect with the positive things—something light, fun, funky, and partying. But some of the tracks still have deeper layers. If you think about Parliament- Funkadelic, some of their best records were totally fun and danceable and ridiculous on one level, but had pretty heavy meanings as well. George Clinton was very clever with his lyrics.

He’s like Monty Python in that there’s social commentary, but delivered with such silly humor that even really uptight people are laughing.
I think people are very cynical these days, and into negative, whiny music. We all have our moods and art reflects that, but I think some of the people who haven’t responded to the record right away see it as one-dimensional party music. Monty Python is a keen observation— I studied English Lit in college, and Shakespeare would do the same thing: silly jokes for the masses, but with intelligent satire underneath.

Was George Clinton a big inspiration for this record, then?
I worked with him in San Francisco for a couple days and he definitely was. So were bands like Sly and the Family Stone, the Revolution, and a lot of groups that mix live and electronic, male and female, black and white.

The nasal vocal treatments on “Underwater Ball” and “Star Power” reminded me of the P-Funk character, Sir Nose D’Void of Funk.
You know, for pretty much every effect on the record, we used very little digital effects or plug-ins. We did all the varispeed vocal stuff with tape. On “Underwater Ball,” I had to sing it while it was playing quickly, then we had to figure out the exact key and speed. Jason Marcucci at Dubway Studios is a brilliant engineer—we figured out how to do a lot of tape effects the way the Beatles, Hendrix, and George Clinton did them. We tried plug-ins, but they didn’t have that rubbery, natural, human quality.

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So you cut the whole album on tape?
We tracked a lot of it to two-inch, then edited in the digital domain. For effects on the keyboards and drum sounds, I used a lot of restored guitar pedals and rare vintage analog outboard effects.
Likewise, there was very little pitch correction. Almost all the vocals were cut live with a million takes until it sounded great. The most expressive vocal performances and sounds aren’t pitch-perfect. The singer gets excited and things go sharp, or they’re a little on top of the beat, or stretching to meet that pitch. There’s a lot of emotion in that reach.

Did that approach inform the keyboard playing as well?
Absolutely. I read somewhere that Matt Fink said Prince only let him sequence in MIDI once in his whole recording career—that fast arpeggio part to “When Doves Cry.” Every other part, Prince wanted live. That gave it such a feel and character. Each line had its own place and space, like singers singing together.

Where did the theme for “Underwater Ball,” in which a sailor goes to an undersea nightclub with a mermaid, come from?
I read Homer’s Odyssey when I was a kid, and there’s one scene where Odysseus and his soldiers sail past the sirens—the women singing on the rocks who lure men to their death—but they got through because they put bread in their ears.

In “The Revolution Has Begun,” there’s this synth break—a walk-up noodle that fools the ear into thinking it’s out of time, but it’s not. How did you do that?
It’s cool that you bring up that song because I’m not a great instrumentalist. I’m totally self-taught. I came into this through DJ’ing. I taught myself to play a little bit on a bunch of different instruments. I’m still learning and getting better. Keyboards are the instruments that let me get all my creative ideas out for the first time ever. Someone like me wouldn’t have been able to write, produce, and arrange music without keyboards. If something’s too complicated, I’ll tweak in MIDI. But I’m proud that I play probably over 90% of the keyboards on the record, especially on that song.

So, what was the secret sauce to that walk-up?
The synth was doubled and panned. I do a lot of that. I either play the same line twice, or tweak a line then pan it to the other side. The sound you’re talking about, I’m pretty sure it was some kind of filtered analog synth arpeggio, reversed. The keyboards in that song are kind of playful— there are a lot of pitchbends.

In “Star Power,” you rap about cars, clubs, designer clothes, and having your pick of hot women. But it’s in this chipmunk voice that makes the braggadocio sound absurd. Was that the intention?
It’s absolutely a satire and you’re one of the few people who’s picked up on that—a lot of people think I’m taking myself seriously! [Laughs.] Also, I’ve spent the last few years doing film, TV, and ad music. I composed scores for a short film series for Glamour magazine called Real Moments. Each year, different actresses direct, and proceeds go to a women’s African charity. I worked on films by Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson, and Bryce Dallas Howard. I had a great experience creatively, but going to L.A. and being exposed to the whole “celeb-reality” culture—that inspired “Star Power,” which is mocking our obsession with fame and bling. Like you said, the varispeed makes it comical, because you picture this insecure little guy who’s all pimped out

What are your earliest memories of being inspired by electronic or synth sounds?
A lot of the people working on the synthesis side of early ’80s rap, like Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force, sounded very futuristic. Before that, I heard Pete Townshend’s work on “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Ever seen footage of him working at an ARP, or Pink Floyd on Dark Side of the Moon at their EMS Synthi? It’s amazing!
Stevie Wonder was a big influence as far as using these supposedly cold, robotic machines in a soulful, funky, emotional way. And the Beatles— I remember listening to my dad’s battered copy of Magical Mystery Tour and hearing all these crazy electronic snippets they’d mixed in on “I Am the Walrus.” Those records made me think, “What the hell is making those noises? It doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever seen.” I wanted to know.

What was the first keyboard that let you make some of those noises?
That was when I was probably eight or ten years old at summer camp—a little Casio with different synth presets.

A lot of major artists have told me a Casio was their first keyboard.
When I learned that keyboards could trigger different sounds, it was like a personal revolution. For me, keyboard was the instrument of the future in that—even though you can’t get the exact sounds of, say, live strings and horns via samples— generally it put every instrument in the world at your fingertips.

You didn’t use soft synths on Technicolor Dreamer. How do you feel about them?
They’re so convenient and you can get so many sounds out of them, but I’d rather get my hands on some crazy old vintage analog synth. It’s never exactly the same twice, but that makes you sculpt the sound in real time instead of flicking through 500 presets.

Do you find you play better on a vintage instrument?
That’s one side of it. Another is, an old Prophet or Oberheim—that’s how they got those sounds and that’s how you can get them. A lot of electronic musicians these days use soft synths and sample sets out of a need for productivity. That’s cool. It’s also good that, if a kid can’t afford a Minimoog, he can have a Minimoog experience with a plugin. But for me on this record, I had the ideal sound in my head and that the only way to get it was with vintage synths.
A good analogy is that most serious guitarists I know are on a dedicated search for tone. Keyboardists are more interested in technique or performance. But really, the sounds need to be sculpted as well. You don’t just record guitar flat through a DI, and you should think about keyboards the same way.

On “What We Got,” this Minneapolis synth brass plays the melody line, then that gets doubled by a heavier synth.
That was a Prophet patch with hard oscillator sync. There are some really cool keyboards on that song.

Not to mention a Jam-and-Lewis rhythm guitar style I didn’t expect to hear on a “dance” record. . . .
Absolutely. I loved a lot of that Minneapolis music. I think in the ’80s, producers and musicians started to replace all their sounds with synths. The “Minneapolis sound” at that time was replacing Tower of Power-style funk horns with synth riffs. They still had the live vocals and guitars. But eventually, a lot of amazing instruments were eradicated from a lot of music, and that’s a shame. On the record, I worked with [trumpeter] Steven Bernstein from the Lounge Lizards. It’s obviously a keyboard-heavy record, but when I wanted horns, I wanted real horns, and when I wanted guitars, I wanted real guitars. I was striving for balance between electronic and live elements.

Speaking of combining elements, you seamlessly fuse a DJ mindset—by which I mean arranging tracks in real time to suit the crowd—with more linear, verse/chorus-type songwriting.
A definite progression for me was trying to write more traditionally structured songs. Also, I grew up with funk, rock, soul, hip-hop, jazz, disco, house, and techno. Coming from a DJ background, I spent years doing ten-minute extended mixes with very little vocals. That informs some of the more club-friendly tracks on the record, like “You’re the Star,” and “Beat Freak.” Songwriting is a subtractive process. I kind of throw everything at the wall, then peel some layers back in different places, which helps me see what I want to happen arrangement-wise.

When you’re first fleshing out an idea, is it happening in Ableton? With beats and loops first? Or with lines worked out on a synth?
I do everything I can on keyboards. Even if I write something for strings, I’ll do it all in MIDI, then have a copyist write it out, then track live strings and mix them with the electronic stuff. Guitar has always been considered a cooler instrument by a lot of people, but to me, the keyboard is far less limited. It has let someone like me, who didn’t have a traditional music education, make music. I wouldn’t be making music without keyboards.