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Inside The Producer's Studio: Making "Raw Life" (1/2)

by +FE on July 24, 2009 at 3:45 PM · Comments
Nicolay breaks down the production and mix of Raw Life by The Foreign Exchange (from Connected).

Backstory:

It should be no secret that the incredible beatwork of the late great J Dilla has been hugely inspirational to me, especially when I was first getting into production. I learned by studying his music, that there is room for musicality and for experimentation, as long as there is a strong and steady foundation going on underneath. Dilla's signature tracks always had that "sweet spot", that chord progression or melody that would tug at your heartstrings, while the drums and the bass would work on your neckmuscles at the same time. As a producer, his drums were eye-opening for me, not only because of his choice of sounds and of ways to process those sounds, but because of his often-imitated "drunken" style of drum programming. Before I got into Dilla's music, I suppose I more or less thought of drum hits as being relatively "fixed". For example, in one bar of four counts, you put a kick hit on the one and the three, a snare hit on the two and four, and hihat hits on every eighth note, with "swing" timing applied (or not, depending on what is called for). Dilla's programming taught me that if you exaggerate this "swing" timing, the drums come alive and feel more "human" and "in the pocket".

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Inside The Producer's Studio (Part 2): On sampling

by +FE on May 5, 2009 at 9:05 AM · Comments
In the prologue and the first part of this series, Nicolay opened up his studio to the public for a virtual overview of the tools that he likes to use. For the next several parts, he will zoom in to the actual music making process, from the initial idea to the fully arranged and mixed production.
So far, we have had over 4,000 unique visitors logging on to our 'Inside The Producer's Studio' series, and I would like to sincerely thank everyone for their attention and for their kind words of appreciation and encouragement. I'm thrilled that so many of you have shown interest in our blogs. Please do continue to help spread the word!


Record shopping in Shibuya, Tokyo November '06 | Uploaded by Nicolay Music.

On sampling

Because I am a musician first and foremost, I have never had to rely on sampling alone. Still, there's no question that technique involving sampling makes up an important part of my music production process. Earlier on in my career, a new idea would usually present itself in the form of a sample that I would find by randomly going through my records, in search of that next "Oh shit!" moment. Even though I love to go record shopping like any fan of music, I am not much of a "digger" because my collection is fairly small, especially after moving from one continent to another. I have personally never seen the point of owning thousands of records, knowing that I would never be able to listen to or study most of them in my lifetime, and so I only buy and hold on to records that are significant to me for one reason or another. As a result, I have a personal connection with each record that I own, and those are the records that I turn to for inspiration.

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Inside The Producer's Studio: Making "Daykeeper" (2/2)

by +FE on April 22, 2009 at 10:09 AM · Comments
Nicolay breaks down the production and mix of Daykeeper by The Foreign Exchange (from Leave It All Behind).
In his comment on the first part of Making 'Daykeeper', Eric Hirsh asked: "Any insight as to why both Connected and Leave It All Behind start with the same sound sequence (but both depart from it in different ways)?" Thanks for bringing that up, Eric; while discussing the origins of 'Daykeeper', I had unintentionally skipped over that intro sound, but it's an important element of both albums. I think it was Phonte's idea to bring back the sound that opens 'Connected' as a "sound logo" that would instantly identify the new album as a Foreign Exchange project. Since we were working with the "Leave It All Behind" concept, I wanted to take the original sounds, to let the listener know that The Foreign Exchange is "back", but develop them into a different, darker direction, to let the listener know that everything is not the same. At this point, the sound logo has begun leading a life of its own as we open all of our shows with it, and it always invokes quite a stir in the audience.

To get back on-topic, I wanted to mention that the mixing of a track isn't necessarily a separate process for me like it is for some others. Writing, arranging, playing and programming, recording and mixing are all part of the same simultaneous creative flow. And how do I know when a mix is done? When I have heard it over and over again and I no longer want to change or add anything. Sometimes it can take a week, sometimes it can take a month. And sometimes it can take a year. But eventually, there's always that moment of realizing that I'm there.

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Inside The Producer's Studio: Making "Daykeeper" (1/2)

by +FE on April 10, 2009 at 8:18 AM · Comments
Nicolay breaks down the production and mix of Daykeeper by The Foreign Exchange (from Leave It All Behind).
Backstory:

I came up with the basic track in november of '06, after coming back from my visit to Tokyo. Japan had made a huge impression on me and I was still in that state of mind, calling the track idea "Shibuya" before sending it over to Phonte to check out. I knew that it was very different from what we had done before, so I wasn't quite sure what to do with it and whether or not it would "fit", but when Phonte heard it, he knew that this was the direction that we were looking for and started to write to it. Not too long after, he recorded the hooks and verses together with Muhsinah and sent them back to me. I was so inspired by the song that I came up with the 3/4 section in the middle almost right away. In turn, Phonte and Muhsinah recorded their additional vocals to the middle section and with that, the song was complete.

The mixing process of this song specifically took well over a year, and if I remember correctly we went through at least a dozen different mixes before we had the final one. There's about 70 (!) tracks of vocals and about 40 more tracks of instruments in the session, so you can imagine that it took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get everything balanced just right.

I'd like to acknowledge Khrysis for his stellar engineering of the vocal recordings as he does time and time again, to Soiree Records for the fine job mastering the album and a special thanks to my partner Phonte and to Muhsinah, who's duet on 'Daykeeper' will undoubtedly go into history as one of the great vocal performances of our generation. By now I must have heard the song hundreds of times, but it still gives me chills each time.

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Inside The Producer's Studio (Part 1): On using the computer

by +FE on April 7, 2009 at 8:32 AM · Comments
In this first part Nicolay explains why he uses a computer and which software he uses for what purpose.

Photo by Stevie Mack | Uploaded by Nicolay Music.

It doesn't really matter what you use, as long as you use it well.

That has been my motto throughout the years that I have been into making music. I have never been a purist or even a "gearslut", and I really don't believe that it matters much whether you use an MPC, an ASR10 or Fruity Loops to make your beats, or at this point, whether you run a laptop or a $100,000 studio. What matters only are the results, and you generally get the best results by using something that you are very familiar with.

My main reason for choosing the computer as a beatmaking machine was that I already owned one, and the music program that I knew how to use on it, called Modplug, was (and still is) free. Besides that I had a turntable, a CD player and a bass and some keyboards and at the time, it was all that I needed to get going. Over the years I have been able to slowly but steadily upgrade my setup, but at the center of it all there's still a computer running the same free program that I started out with.

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Inside The Producer's Studio (Prologue)

by +FE on April 3, 2009 at 8:36 AM · Comments
Nicolay is starting a new blog series aimed to provide an indepth look into the process behind his music production while breaking down specific tracks from his catalogue.

Photo by Stevie Mack | Uploaded by Nicolay Music.

The question that I get asked most is without a doubt, "What do you use?". I'm a fan and student of music first and foremost, and I have always been more than willing to answer that question, but I have found that it is impossible for me to do so in a MySpace or Twitter message using only a few sentences. Print and online articles and interviews don't always allow for indepth discussion, either. Fortunately, our new website finally gives me the platform to share the method to my madness, and so over the course of an indefinite number of installments, I'm going to break down the what, why and how of my music production setup. I will discuss my favourite pieces of hard- and software, my favourite ways of (ab)using them and the track(s) from my catalogue in which you can hear them at work. Because at the end of the day, it is all about the music.

Continue reading Inside The Producer's Studio (Prologue)

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