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).


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".

I did the beat that became 'Raw Life' in October of 2002. It's arguably THE "banger" on the "Connected" album, and can certainly be looked at as a Dilla "nod", because I, like so many others around that time, was consciously channeling some of those programming techniques to come up with my own interpretation of the "drunken" style.

Drums and percussion

I can't really begin to explain what goes on "under the hood" of 'Raw Life', without taking a closer look at my sequencer of choice, Modplug. In previous installments in this series, I mentioned that Modplug offers total control over timing, and this track couldn't be a better example. Modplug's grid might look different from what you are used to, but the concept behind it is actually quite basic. Let's say that we are looking at a single bar of four quarter notes. In a "normal" sequencing environment, each of those quarter notes would break into two eighth notes, and each of those eighth notes would break into two sixteenth notes, etc. etc., until you get to the smallest value available, which normally is a sixty-fourth note. In a "tracker", the smallest value is a "row", and you can decide for yourself how many rows make up one eight note or one quarter note. As a result, the differences can be much more subtle.

For 'Raw Life', I set the quater note value to 32 rows, so a single bar of four quarter notes consists of 128 rows. If you take a look at the screenshot above, you'll see that the kick drum hits on channels 2 and 3 are precisely on time, keeping everything together, while the snare drum hits on channels 4 and 5 are actually one row early, for example on 31 instead of 32. The hihat hits are one row late, for example on 1, 17, 33 and 49 instead of 0, 16, 32 and 48. Again, these differences are subtle, but you can definitely hear the difference, and more importantly, FEEL the difference. The second hihat (which is EQ-ed to sound more like a "shaker"), on channel 8, is pushed down 5 rows, hitting it significantly later. Unlike the rest of the drums, this second hihat doesn't have any "swing" timing applied to it. Filling out the main drums and percussion are the occasional crash hit, and the continuous 'ganza' (shaker) sound that gives the track its edge.

Now, I don't blame you if you think that the above break down is a little on the abstract side, which is why I have compiled the following audio examples that should illustrate all of this quite effectively.

Example A: 'Raw Life' drums and percussion with 'human' timing as they are on the recording, programmed as described above

Example B: 'Raw Life' drums and percussion with 'rigid' timing, with each part programmed to hit exactly 'on time'

The first one should instantly get your neck bobbing. The second one... not so much.

The live drums that you hear at the beginning of Phonte's second verse (as well as during the outro of the track), were taken from a recording of me playing the drums in a rehearsal space, a few years earlier. I had to sample and then EQ, compress, and tighten the living daylights out of them, but the effect worked wonders. More on that later.


The main bass part consists of 'stab' notes done with an 808 bass sound. As you can see in the screenshot, the bass part on channel 6 is aligned with the second hihat so it drags behind the kick drum quite a bit. There's also a synth bass part on top of the main bass that comes in with the first hook. I did this part using the Roland Juno 60 synthesizer, easily one of my favourite analogue synthesizers ever made. When I moved to the States in '06, I unfortunately had to leave my Juno behind (no pun intended), but I own a Juno 106 and I am currently on the lookout for a Juno 60 replacement.

...to be continued soon!

Thank you for listening,


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