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Amid post-production suites, house clubs, and rehearsal studios in the fire-hot music neighborhood of Chicago's Wicker Park, the Slang Musicgroup is redefining modern music production. Founder and owner Vince Lawrence—recognized as the first person to produce and mix a house-music single, Jessie Saunders' "On And On"—left years of producing and mixing chart-topping albums with R. Kelly and others at Trax Records to launch Slang in a 8,000 square-foot former tool die factory. His goal (now achieved) was to attract a wide range of clients and music genres by working with a collective of producers, each in his or her own high-tech editing suite. Stroll through the Slang complex today and you'll hear R&B, soul, and dance remixes; rock, pop, and rap anthems; film soundtracks; surround-sound video game mixes; and cues for Nike commercials.
Lawrence, a longtime Digidesign Pro Tools user, loves his synthesizers, be they vintage hardware pieces or the soft variety in cascading plugin menus. You'll find over 50 hardware synths and drum machines in the main "vibe" room at Slang, where every song ends its production cycle. Lawrence and his Slang soundsmiths each have his or her own seriously equipped private "thinksuites" as well. These satellite studios are positioned just outside the control room to tweak the many projects oscillating throughout this huge former warehouse.
Reached by phone, Lawrence somehow remains calm as one fellow Slang producer after another interrupts to ask if, with clients waiting, he's yet auditioned their new remixes over the local Apple network.
Randy Alberts (RA): There must be a palpable work ethic left over in your studio from the building's warehouse days.
Vince Lawrence (VL): Oh, yeah. People really like to work long hours in here. [laughs] We have Apple iTunes in the control room and at each of our workstations, the kitchen, the lounges, everywhere. We can hear one of our new remixes in the kitchen over lunch and be inspired to try out a new idea as we eat. Someone might ask me, "What are you feelin' the kick should sound like right here?" and I'll say, "It should sound exactly like that kick sound in 'Coitus Interruptus' by Fad Gadget, or that kick in 'No Parking On The Dance Floor' by Midnight Star."
Vince Lawrence with a small fraction of his synth arsenal, including modules from E-mu, Studio Electronics, and Roland.
RA: So you're using iTunes as a Slang jukebox to inspire your collective of producers?
VL: Exactly. Someone might say, "Do you remember that particular distortion sound they used in Black Sabbath's 'Sweet Leaf'?" One time I suggested we listen to that interesting spatial effect in "Blasphemous Rumors" by Depeche Mode as an example, and one of the guys said, "Uh, could you spell 'blasphemous'?'' [Laughs.] We just type it into iTunes, find it, and have it playing within seconds of the suggestion. Here's the thing: we find it interesting to listen to how other people were thinking during a specific passage of a composition or a mix because it will always spark a new idea for us if we're stuck on a bridge, or intro, or whatever. It always gives us a spatial reference or placement in the sound field we want in our songs, every single time.
RA: It sounds like Slang Musicgroup is the connective audio tissue between many different music genres: rock, pop, metal, rap, and hip-hop melding with orchestral scores and surround game soundtracks. How do you make that work?
VL: Yes, we're challenging ourselves in these diverse ways to bring these new elements into the dance music and electronica tracks we've always been producing. At the same time, we're bringing all of these synthesizers to the rock artists we're working with, who may never have recorded with a synth before. We're also using dance and remix tricks at the console and on the computer that are typical for us in house and techno with the rock artists we're producing. [See the QuickTips at the end of this article.]
RA: Your and Slang's credits and tastes are very diverse. Whitney Houston, the Crystal Method, R. Kelly, Ministry, Snoop Dogg, Concrete Blonde, and Chicago's own Felix Da' Housecat have trusted your team. Is there one band that unifies it all?
VL: I've always been into anyone using synthesizers to make music, that's first to mind; and that's with all of us looking up to Kraftwerk, of course. A lot of people lose sight of them or don't even know who they are anymore, but I know them very well. I still have all of their records.
RA: Tell me about Slang's Chicago Fire project.
VL: Chicago Fire is a new royalty-free sample CD collection for Sony, a loop library for Sony Acid, or Ableton Live, or any program that reads and works with Acidized files. Loops, kick drums, one-hits, piano digs, bass lines, vocal samples, vocal phrases, anything you need to make a hot house music track rock. It's a five-CD set for just $249 list.
RA: Is it from old or new material?
VL: All those samples and loops are taken from multitracks I've done, plus some special vocals done just for Chicago Fire. You can craft a hot house-music tune just using this package with all the vocals and loops we put on it.
Slang's Pro Tools-powered studio in a rare empty moment. (Click to enlarge.)
RA: What is going on lately at Slang?
VL: We've been busy with remixes on Amerie, an artist on Sony with a song called "Touch," and other dance remixes of R&B stuff. We've also been producing the little twin girls Sammy and Sasha Nelson; they've been on Nickelodeon. But they're doing rock, and I like it.
Katia, one of Slang Musicgroup's artists. (Hear her music below.)
RA: Are rock, rap, hip-hop, and pop more overlapped than ever now?
VL: Yeah, a little bit. But my production techniques transcend genre in the sense that I'm producing rock, and R&B, and dance, and remixes.
RA: You're known for your expertise in synthesis. Have you kept all of your hardware synths?
VL: Well, I hate to say I've let one or two go, but mostly I've kept them all. Lately I've been using Propellerhead's Reason and Waldorf's MicroWave soft synth a lot; and Studio Electronics' SE-1 hardware rack synth and the Novation Supernova are amazing.
I've got 50 hardware synths and all the soft synths here in the world right here with me, but those few are the ones I've been just workin' it out on most lately. I'll add a little thing from here, something from over there, but for the most part it's been a lot of the Supernova, especially. That SE-1 is phat, too, really big for what I do with bass parts.
Oh, and Spectrasonics' Atmosphere, too, we love that synth plugin here and have been using it a lot lately. We're going to find some more banks to load into that with more noises than all these pad-y things you get in the Atmosphere presets. We're using that soft synth a lot.
RA: How do you choose between the software and hardware synths when you're working?
VL: There are so many soft synths to choose from these days, so we're weighing the pros and cons here at Slang. We think synths in a computer have their own sound, and it's a great sound, but it is "a" sound nonetheless, and sometimes you want that "other" sound, too, y'know, the real thing. That's why we keep our modules and aren't going to sell a single piece of hardware again. Yes, all the soft synths and all the real ones, too.
RA: "Real ones"?
VL: Yeah, I mean, come on! My first synth was a Moog Prodigy, OK? I had an Oberheim Matrix-6, a Roland JX3P, and a Korg Poly-61. Soft synths are great and sound about the same as the real thing, but there's nothing like the feeling of an old synth and that you can't keep it in tune. There's something very funny about that one for me on the Poly-61, too: I liked it and later got the Poly 61-M.
Spectrasonics' Atmosphere plugin is an easy-to-use yet great-sounding pad synthesizer.
RA: The rack version?
VL: No, man, remember? That stood for "MIDI." [laughs] That was right there at the cusp of MIDI. I also have a Roland TR-808 and JX8P, a bunch of stuff in here we still have at Slang racked and stacked near the computers.
RA: You had just installed a Digidesign Control-24 console last time we talked. How has that worked out?
VL: We've removed the big boards from our room and have been operating with the Control-24 as our primary work surface all year—and we gave up almost 50 channels of analog input to do so! That's a huge sacrifice. But, let's just get to the point here: it's all about the plugins. We automate so much using the Waves stuff and plugins like McDSP's FilterBank that the new board is a huge improvement for us. We really need the C-24's ability to assign all those synth and audio plugin parameters to individual knobs. It's great to see the tactile side of engineering becoming important once again.
Studio Electronics, long known for its analog synthesizers, is now in the plugin world with the SE-1X, a Lawrence favorite for bass sounds.
RA: What other gear gets a big workout at Slang?
VL: As I mentioned, we use Reason a lot, and also the Akai MPC-3000 and an Access Virus, the real thing. I like turning the knobs on the Virus, and the Virus plugin, too. And we use Native Instruments Kontakt a lot and we're about to get Battery. McDSP's Synth One is cool; that's something else new we're using since our last conversation.
RA: How are you connecting Pro Tools to Reason?
VL: We're pretty quick to pass the MIDI out of Reason to Pro Tools and into the control room with all the synths. We need to get the bass sounds real quick onto the SE-1 in the main room and pass that MIDI out of Reason so that we can access all of the 50 synths as quickly as possible.
RA: You come from the analog tape days of the '80s. Truthfully, how does desktop digital recording sound to your ear now?
VL: Let me be very clear about the analog-like sound quality of Pro Tools|HD Accel: it's great. It's the high quality of the HD family that allows us to still sound so analog while retaining all the digital control we're used to.
RA: Is it true you got your start in the music world blowing things up on a Parliament tour?
VL: For real, that's true! I was a pyrotechnician on the road with Captain Sky, and yes, he is from the Parliament family. I was 14. My dad couldn't afford to send me to summer camp that year so he put me on a bus with those guys.
With 20,000 CDs ripped into their studio's iTunes network, Vince Lawrence and Slang Musicgroup are never at a loss for inspiration.
The white-noise swell has long been a tool in many remix and dance tunes to add excitement in and around musical transitions. Lawrence says it's easy to come up with the perfect swell. First, open up a new audio track in Pro Tools (or any digital audio workstation), then open a plugin test-tone generator.
"Then find the white noise setting and set a level of about 10 dB," Lawrence explains. "Highlight the length of your song with the cursor and click on 'Process' to stripe white noise from the start of your tune to the end. Now, open a filter plugin—I typically use McDSP's FilterBank F2—and spike up the high-end gain and bring down the frequency to a low midrange level."
Next, says Lawrence, play back the white noise track and slowly move the frequency back up a notch at a time until you get a nice sweeping effect; experiment with the frequency adjustment and "spike" to taste for your own flavor of swell.
"Once you have decided on how you want to sweep the filter, activate the automation on the knobs you want to use and make a pass while moving the sliders around," he continues. "For added flavor, throw a Waves MetaFlanger on the white noise track, or capture the white noise off of a rhythmic hi-hat loop track you have lying around."
Vince Lawrence and his Slang team often find themselves either slowing down or speeding up a cappella vocal sections to match the desired tempo in their dance remixes. Here's how he deals with the ugly artifacts caused by increasing the tempo.
"You get what we call, 'the Billy Goat effect,'" he notes. "That's where the singer begins sounding like a goat because the vibrato in their voice speeds up too much when you stretch it too far to match your remix key. To counteract the effect you can fade in and out the original a cappella voices during the portions of the song where the vibrato at the same time is fading in the original vocal on a separate track. Then, fade out the original vocal while fading in the sped-up vocal to keep the cadence and timing of the vocal part together. This move takes time to feel natural with and to get sounding seamless, and you might have to fudge it around a lot to get it right, but it will sound just right when you're done."
These links go the Slang Music site.
Randy Alberts is an author, musician, and photographer who lives on Lummi Island, Washington.
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