There are the producers who will finish a project and take a breath, and there are those who never stop. Amp Live is the latter. From remixing (Radiohead, MGMT, Jamie Lidell) to his hip-hop group Zion-I, his solo albums, and other collaborations, Amp Live’s workflow is constant. His latest solo album, Murder at the Discotech [Child’s Play] may have taken nearly two years to make, but Zion-I’s touring schedule and his other projects were also part of his juggling act. “I’m home for three days and then I have to go back out,” he laments. “I just have time to get work done and leave.”
Due to the various distractions and Amp Live’s diverse musical interests (including hip-hop, electronic, indie-rock, and jazz), the album took several turns. “It started out pretty hardcore dance,” he says. “Then I started using more guitars, and then I changed my feeling about it again. I come from a hip-hop background, and I wanted to portray more of that.”
In the end, Murder at the Discotech settled on an ’80s electro/hip-hop vibe meshed with newer production inspirations from dubstep, hipstep, B-more, rock, and even ska. But Amp knows that the latest studio techniques often have a short shelf life. “I think Ableton Live effects are being overused, like tuning down the vocals so that it sounds like a record stopping,” Amp says. “And all the B-more chop-up breaks are pretty much done. It’s on a commercial level now.”
That said, Amp Live still likes a creative turn of Auto-Tune or a jagged stutter edit, but he doesn’t stagnate in his methodology. While Murder was mostly created in the box—a mix of Logic, Pro Tools, and Ableton Live—he’s now working on a jazz-inspired album, Love, God, Music, Life, with more outboard gear.
And while you’ll hear percussive stutters in tracks like “Dropp,” he won’t stick to the same tricks for long. “It’s a way of making a song more interesting, but I probably won’t do it as much anymore,” he says. “Now, if I’m with a vocalist, they could do stuff that would fill in for that [effect], different harmonies and arrangements happening in the moment.”
But whichever way he goes, he likes to tweak things . . . a lot. “On ‘Dropp,’ those drums are really distorted and big sounding,” Amp says. “It started out as a basic kick that you get on your keyboard, but I took the sounds through reverb and compressed ’em, put distortion on ’em, re-sampled ’em, tuned them down, and combined ’em with other drums.”
For Murder, which was recorded at 880 Studio in Oakland (where Green Day records), outboard gear was limited to his Avalon Vt-737sp channel strip, a Blue Mouse mic, a Korg Kaossilator, and a Dynacord Echocord. In the box, it was all about virtual instruments and plug-ins such as Native Instruments Massive, EastWest Fab Four, Spectrasonics Atmosphere, FXpansion BFD, Rob Papen Albino 3, and Logic’s Guitar Amp.
Jason Moss, Amp Live’s longtime mixing engineer (and instructor at Los Angeles Recording School), was impressed with Amp’s juggling of inthe- box techniques. “Amp sent me the tracks with so many interesting edits, change ups, and effects, there wasn’t as much to do beyond the fundamentals of mixing,” he says.
But Moss still had opportunities to experiment. “‘About to Blow’ was a great opportunity to add some interesting effects to K.Flay’s vocals,” he says. “The first verse I treated with [Avid] Lo-Fi. I lowered the sample rate, turned off anti-aliasing, and added saturation to give it a funky computerized sound. On the hook, I used [Avid] Recti-fi to add a low octave to her voice to fill it out. The second verse is straight forward until the outtro buildup, where I used a [SoundToys] EchoBoy delay with distortion.”
Meanwhile, with a whopping seven rappers competing for space, “Hot Right Now” was a complicated track to make and mix. “I just wanted to combine a bunch of different people that people wouldn’t expect to be together,” Amp says. Each rapper had four to eight bars to work with, starting with The Grouch and Fashawn, who set the tone. “I used Guitar Amp for one of the vocals,” he says. “Or I’d distort a vocal by going out the outputs of the computer, putting it back through the input, and then turning it up.”
Moss mixed Murder on an SSL 9000K console through JBL 6328 and 4328 monitors, often using the console’s bus compressor. “I find the SSL bus compressor glues the low end together nicely,” he says. “But when compressing the stereo mix, I usually only use 2 to 3dB of gain reduction. Any more than that and I find my mix closes up and loses bass response.”
Yet for “Hot Right Now,” Moss had to count on software compression. “I didn’t have enough analog compressors to treat each rapper individually,” he admits. “I used a combination of Waves Renaissance Compressor and Renaissance Vox in serial and in that order. The amount of RComp changed from person to person depending on performance and tracking quality, but I usually use a 3:1 ratio with around 30ms attack and 125ms release time. Release time has to be fast for rapping due to the rhythmic patterns. The RVox creates a combination of compression and loudness, which helped get mix levels even and create a front and center feel. And the EQ was all done on the SSL channels, emphasizing the 5 to 6kHz range for clarity, especially for male vocals.”
Aside from creating a clown car of rappers, editing waveforms into oblivion, and re-sampling and distorting to a crisp, Amp Live is taking a break from wacky drop-the-mic-down-the-well experiments these days. “I used to be more into that until I started spending hella time doing stuff where people either didn’t pay attention to it or they were [flippantly] like, ‘Oh, okay, that’s cool,’” he says. “So I find a balance of doing the crazy stuff and the stuff where I want to get the crazy effect across, but I don’t want to go crazy to make it.”