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He’s played keyboards for Beck, Air, Sheryl Crow, Jamiroquai, Green Day, and many others. He co-founded the critically favored pop-rock bands Jellyfish and Imperial Drag. He produces music for film (Lost in Translation, Friday Night Lights, Spider-Man), television (VH-1, Comedy Central), and high-profile commercials for American Express, Nike, and Reebok. And he recently released his first solo album, Solid State Warrior, in a daring new digital format.
But to synth geeks everywhere, it’s his bubble-headed space suit that separates Roger Joseph Manning, Jr., from the rest.
Manning’s zany, loungy Moog Cookbook experiment in 1996 with Brian Kehew—which started as an inside joke—may have created his most devoted following to date. The space-suited duo’s instrumental samba ’n’ shuffle versions of glory rock songs like “More Than a Feeling,” “Ziggy Stardust,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “25 or 6 to 4,” played on walls of vintage synthesizers, were addictively cool.
More recently, Manning is excited to be one of the first artists to distribute a solo album exclusively as Weed files. He performed, recorded, and produced Solid State Warrior (’60s- and ’70s-flavored pop à la Jellyfish and Imperial Drag) all in his basement studio using TASCAM GigaStudio 3, lots of software instruments, and a collection of over 200 vintage pedals, keyboards, drum modules, recorders, and synths.
“It’s no mystery,” Manning says. “Global communication is upon us, so now you can be a rock star in Japan from a home studio in Minneapolis.”
Space is limited in his home studio, so before recording Solid State Warrior, he built his virtual drum kits inside a custom PC. He had planned to later replace those rough tracks using a real drummer, but the results were realistic enough to obviate the second step. Using equal portions of GigaStudio sound libraries and classic drum samples lifted from his extensive collection of vinyl records, even Manning was surprised with the drum sound he baked up.
“I mapped out all of my favorite drum sounds in GigaStudio and triggered those playing my DrumKAT [MIDI controller],” he says. “I’m a huge vinyl collector who loves to go back through those sounds and bring them forward into Giga. I’m quite proud of the realistic drums I was able to create just right here in my basement. ”
It was the Moog Cookbook’s two CDs that caught Beck’s attention, leading to an ongoing collaboration. Manning recorded and toured on Mutations, Midnight Vultures, and Sea Change and is on the new Guero—five years removed. Thanks to ProTools, Beck was able to carve, cut, and paste Manning’s licks from some 1999 jam sessions into the new album. “Beck just reopened those hard drives with the Dust Brothers and started chopping ’em up into new songs,” Manning reveals.
I caught up with him by phone in his L.A. home studio.
Randy Alberts: You’ve played tons of hardware instruments. What are some of your favorite software tools?
Roger Manning: I work with most all of the McDSP, IK Multimedia, Serato, and Bomb Factory plugins for signal processing. Lately, for software instruments, I’ve been using Native Instruments’ Absynth, Spectrasonics’ Atmosphere, and TimewARP 2600 from Way Out Ware, and for all my sampling, it’s TASCAM GigaStudio 3. I especially like the Sonic Implants libraries for GigaStudio. They record all their sounds in woody, natural-sounding rooms that sound warm and beautiful.
Alberts: There isn’t a Mac version of GigaStudio, so are you doing all of your sampling now on a PC?
Manning: Yes, I’ve been a Giga user since the earliest versions and now have a custom-built PC “hot rod” dedicated completely to GigaStudio. I was raised on Mac for a very long time and still use my ProTools|TDM system on a G4 to record and edit and produce, but Brent Meyers, who built the PC for me, told me, "Nah, this is what you need." He built a rackmount PC chassis from the ground up for me running a 3.2 GHz Pentium 4 processor with a pair of 200 GB, 7,200 RPM drives in a RAID array for ridiculously fast streaming of samples. I have all these antique vintage synths, including a modular E-mu and two ARP 2600s, and all of it is in one room with the Giga hot rod sitting right here in the middle.
Alberts: For longtime Mac users like you, what’s the main advantage of adding a PC just for GigaStudio?
Manning: The main things are the gigantic sample file sizes you’re working with—which are streamed from the hard drive and sound incredible—and the ability to have those all open at your fingertips all at once. I have something like 250 gigs of all my favorite sounds, loops, and grooves right there and ready to go without waiting for anything to load. I work a lot from home with television producers who send me their ProTools session files and direct me over the phone in real time, auditioning sounds with this huge palette I have.
They’re very excited about GigaStudio, because auditioning and changing things with it is so fast, and it provides them with orchestral and sound-making options they don’t normally have with limited budgets in a conventional studio environment.
Lately, I’ve been working [using GigaStudio] with a music producer named Jeff Trott who works a lot with Sheryl Crow. He’s developing a new artist and is hiring me to put some orchestral strings on the record.
Alberts: How did you use GigaStudio on your solo album, Solid State Warrior?
Manning: There’s a song called “Sleep Children” that’s all Giga and my voice, nothing else. I used some pedal steel and accordion sounds and lots of different pianos. One of my favorite piano sounds on the record is in the song “’Til We Meet Again,” where I took three different huge piano samples and spread them across the stereo perspective. Some were delayed in terms of attack and latency, but the composite sound I got from it is amazing. It’s like a tack piano with a lot more fidelity to it that sounds very three-dimensional in the mix. Another song, “Too Late for Us Now,” is almost a country shuffle that I’ve actually got sitar on.
Alberts: You’re a busy remixer, too. What are some standout projects from the past year?
Manning: I did a remix of Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther theme for the remake with Steve Martin and Beyoncé—a song we all know because we’ve seen all the movies—and I got real electronic on it. I kept the brass parts and that was about it. His original is a swing jazz track, but mine is very dancey and electronic sounding, all in even 16ths. I spent most of a day chopping his track up note-by-note and replacing it into my song so that it didn’t swing anymore. Man, was that a labor of love!
Another remix I did was the Doobies’ “Listen To the Music,” which was included on Warner Brothers’ What Is Hip collection of ’70s and ’80s remakes that came out last year. That was another song we all know that I changed quite a bit, so that was not an easy task. As I viewed their original track arrangements and began to deconstruct it, I thought, ‘God, isn’t this illegal?’ I thought I’d burn in hell for tampering with that one. But it made a big difference to me to hear they approved my remix.
A good part of Roger Manning’s time is spent chopping up his vinyl collection—the sampled loops from it, that is. For remixes he savors scratchy old mono drum loops. Here he shares one of his favorite tricks using ProTools’ Grid mode, some subtle pitch-shifting, and basic stereo imaging to teach an old loop a new trick or two. You could also use a digital delay, but the results are “not even close” to following these easy steps, says Manning.
“I like to duplicate a mono loop I’ve lifted from vinyl and offset the two parts like a stereo pair,” he says. “Like a lot of people remixing, I’m trying to make samples I’ve taken from other sources and make it sound like an original recording by using some techniques.”
Manning explains that he might start this process by setting the timing grid to a quarter-note or an eighth-note, for instance, then moving one copy of the loop later in time by a 64th note.
“You’ll have the left-hand side of the audio right on the Grid mark and the right side delayed by 64th or whatever fits the song,” he continues. “I’ve found that 1/64 seems to be a number that works best regardless of what’s going on tempo- and feel-wise in the track.”
Manning says to make sure the loop copies are panned hard left and right to avoid slapback echo and flamming, especially with loose-feeling loops. He suggests reducing the level of the left-channel (first) signal by 1.5 to 3 dB, noting that the delayed copy will actually sound softer now due to the Haas effect.
“This tricks the ear and keeps your mix from sounding too left-heavy,” he explains. “It just makes it sound more equal and much more even. Offsetting it makes that loop’s sound field really wide and gives it a sort of 3D element. It’s a really quick, easy way to widen a dull, one-dimensional sounding loop and make it stand out in a remix without having to always sound lo-fi and scratchy when featuring old vinyl-based loops.”
Pitch on Wheels. Manning goes on to suggest adding subtle pitch shifting to the grid technique, especially when working with harmonically oriented samples. He loves to play his twisted sample like the new instrument it is.
“This works really well with a wah-wah guitar part,” he adds. “You can take one of the sides and pitch-shift it up or down 20 to 30 cents to give it a chorusy sound, though it’s still not traditional chorusing. [There are 100 cents in a semitone, the pitch difference between two notes on a piano.] Typically, you’ll want chorusing to be rubbing with the original so it choruses, but I usually find that sounds too extreme and too synthetic. I still want everything to sound organic even though all I’m doing is manipulating and splitting it wide across the stereo field.
“You can experiment with the dB level offsets, the pitch-shifting amounts, and the pan fields until it sounds like it was actually played along with the drum loop you started out with. You get everything working together in that way with samples. It’s a good way to re-inject life into old recordings, especially old mono drum loops.”
Looking for another way to catch a listener’s ear when the all-important chorus approaches in your remix? Manning offers up another quick-’n’-easy way to create pop and sizzle through ProTools’ Grid mode.
“Let’s say you have a drum fill that is all 16th notes and lasts for one measure,” he says. “Open up the panning window in ProTools and record your pans in time with the tempo of the song, but do them from small to large.
“In other words, on the first quarter-note, everything might be to the left, and on quarter-note 2, everything will be to the right; then on beat 3, on the first and second eighth notes, I will again go left-right, and on the final quarter note of 16ths I take each 16th note left-right, left-right, and make the pan field widen out as the fill increases and the song moves on. The first two or three quarter notes in the fill aren’t panned very wide, but then the next eighth notes get wider and finally the last 16ths are panned hard left and right before going back to the song’s original panning positions.
“An otherwise straightforward drum fill can get really flashy and hyper for just the length of one drum fill. In a lot of ways, this is another dimension of what somebody like Fatboy Slim does with his vocal stutters. I have a similar approach but I use panning and widening the field over time instead of the vocal stutter cut. You could even have two or three elements going—like the drums may be doing it, the vocal might be doing it, or the keyboard sweep—but you’re doing them all in time with some purpose in mind. This tip creates a really exciting moment that jumps out of nowhere in the middle of your song.”
Using Grid mode ensures that all pans are in time with a song’s tempo, Manning explains. “Your fills might not be 16th notes; just use this to your best taste,” he concludes. “The whole concept is to start out narrow and simple rhythmically. Your note durations are longer as the fill increases, and not only does your panning widen, but your frequency of moving back and forth from left to right quickens, as well. That frequency may quicken to eighth-notes or 16th notes, as opposed to the beginning of the fill, when you were maybe only on half notes or quarter notes. Of course, the longer your fill, the crazier and even more extreme you can get with this.”
What about starting off with wide pans and gradually bringing them in tighter? “No, you don’t normally want to do this tip in reverse,” Manning notes. “The whole point is to accelerate a song with these graduating pans during the breaks; going the other way does just the opposite.”
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Randy Alberts is an author, musician, and photographer who lives on Lummi Island, Washington.
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