The Angel with Digital Wings

by Randy Alberts

01/19/2005

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Some know her for her electronic tracks under the 60 Channels moniker, some for Thru the Haze, the drum 'n' bass (D'n'B) album she recorded with England's More Rockers as the band Jaz Klash. Others may recall her soundtracks for the films Boiler Room and Gridlock'd and the PBS show Junkyard Saints, while still others may know her for her jazz, trip-hop, hip-hop, and electronic dub projects spotlighted in the pages of Remix and Keyboard.

Then there are those who only recognize her by her trademark programming, DJing, engineering, mixing, and remixing skills. Even fewer may know her solely as the founder and CEO of the Supa Crucial Recordings record label.

But everyone who knows of her knows her as The Angel.

Perhaps everyone, that is, except for the major labels and radio stations bent on wedging every round peg into only one square hole. Growing up with hip-hop in New York and finding her stride in the D'n'B-soaked clubs of London and Bristol before settling in Los Angeles to carry it all on while composing soundtracks, The Angel was bound to confuse mainstream music channels.

No matter how the world chooses to describe her projects—"funky in a trippy downtempo way"; "dark yet strikingly beautiful, melodic, and ethereal"; "eclectic jazz, soul, and dance"; "urban alternative with just a hint of double time"—The Angel's music is essential listening.

The Angel at Pro Tools Desk
The Angel at her Pro Tools setup: "I've never been afraid to trust my instincts, experimenting on my own terms regardless of which sounds or new gadgets are getting all the mainstream hype."

You're known for using both high-tech and "no-tech" gear in your music, performance, and soundtrack work. How do you balance those approaches?

It's been a natural progression. My music and recording systems have always been a mixture of high-end and low-end gear simply because I've always bought what I could afford at the time. These days, the high-end compressors, EQs, and other mastering tools balance out my more experimental and less traditional approaches to programming and recording. I've always done the best I could with the gear available to me and encourage others to do the same.

Do you have to clean up the noise of your older gear to make it fit better in your digital audio tracks?

Noise isn't always a bad thing. This is entirely subjective, but the right kind of noise can add a certain je ne sais quoi to a track. I'll still spend inordinate amounts of time cleaning up tracks, but I don't believe in having all sorts of rigid rules about the best way to achieve the ultimate sound. Instinct is the key. If you can't trust your instinct over the recording textbooks, then you'll ultimately undermine your creative potential and unnecessarily limit yourself.

So, what is the noisiest bit of audio you've allowed into a final mix?

Probably from the song "Still Burnin'"—the treatment of my lead vocal on that track is something a well-trained engineer might cry about! The combination of EQ and effects just made the vocal pop through the mix without having to sit it on top of everything else in the song to be heard. That allowed the bass part to play a more rhythmic and melodic lead role in the song, which the vocal could then play against.

DJing at the Echo
The Angel performs at the Echo in Silverlake, California, July 2004.

Is it difficult creatively to straddle analog and digital tendencies with every studio upgrade?

It's a bit of a mind trip. I was pretty much dragged into the digital world kicking and screaming. I discovered glitches caused by dithering problems with the initial batch of [Yamaha] O2Rs [digital mixers], and this definitely made me question if I had made the right move at the time. But I stuck with the O2Rs and [Akai] DR16 [hard disk recorder] and learned to integrate the digital pieces with my analog setup.

My latest upgrade moved me sideways into a more hybrid analog-digital realm, monitoring my music through an analog console that doubles as a software control surface for Pro Tools. Now I'm trying to reprogram myself to be less reliant on my computer keyboard to fully take advantage of all the tactile maneuvering a software controller provides. All of these changes have dramatically changed the way I create and work on my music. It just takes a minute to get one's head around the advantages of new combinations of gear.

But if it's such a big change and you were already making great music with your existing gear, why upgrade?

All of these fundamental changes had to happen in order for me to run a more efficient, powerful, faster, and better-quality studio. Once my 60 Channels Covert Movements album was released, promoted, and toured last year, I made a commitment to overhaul my system; that's when I upgraded to Pro Tools|HD 3 and replaced my 02R mixers with a Digidesign Control|24 software controller. It inevitably slowed me down creatively in the short term, but the long term is looking sweet.

Covert Movements cover
The Angel as her alter ego 60 Channels. Album remixes by E-Sassin and DJ Origin are due out in early 2005.

Compared to the Angel projects, how do you approach your 60 Channels identity?

It's different. Technologically speaking, I rely more heavily on effects and less on traditional techniques when I'm creating unique sounds and rhythms for my 60 Channels material. I tend to be even more detail- and finesse-oriented than usual and pay really close attention to every note, every beat, and every word. I like keeping 60 Channels just outside of its closest music genres of drum 'n' bass and dub reggae by throwing in just enough of a twist of jazz and rock instrumentation to keep the purists scratching their heads.

How do your current Macintosh productions compare creatively to your ADAT [multitrack digital audio tape] and Atari-based projects back in the early 90s?

Getting away from the Atari and analog and digital tape was like being handed a "get out of jail free" card! The most pronounced differences are the speed that I can work at now and my ability to effortlessly recall even the most complicated projects. I used to hate to have to work on more than one project at a time because no matter how much documentation I wound up with, there would inevitably be some magical element missing. I was particularly susceptible to that because I ran everything live, rarely printing [recording] any sequenced tracks. Working with Pro Tools has changed my routine completely. I'm finally in the habit of printing absolutely everything in 24-bit at 48kHz and really liking it.

Are you into using software instruments and sound design plug-ins?

I'm using a whole bunch of different soft synths like the [Native Instruments] Pro 53, [Access] Virus and Indigo, and some of the [Propellerhead] Reason synths. I use them sparingly in tandem with my huge original library of Akai-formatted sample disks, which I'm converting over to the MOTU MachFive format using their UVI-Xtract conversion utility.

Do you favor any particular synthesizers?

No. It's rare for me to use a synth without really messing with the sounds in it, so ultimately it doesn't matter what I start out with. A synth is more like a lump of clay for me that has yet to be molded into a musically useful form. I'm not interested in trainspotting synth sounds.

Everly, Angel, Frank
Director Bart Everly, The Angel, and Congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass) at the premiere of Let's Get Frank at the Film Forum in New York, July 2004. The Angel composed the film's soundtrack.

What have you learned from owning your own record label?

It's a business, like any other, requiring many hours of attention to non-creative things like budgeting, scheduling, accounting, travel, etc. There are also a lot of creative, non-musical decisions to be made about marketing and promotion—plain and simple, it's hard work. The most significant thing for me is that I control and own my music masters and publishing rights and I'm building and licensing an active catalog to film and TV. I'm creating assets for myself, not "the man," so it's worth every 24-hour lockout and all the aggro that goes with running a record label. [See The Angel's latest project, 60 Channels.]

You've said that younger female DJs and artists often approach you after shows to tell you what a pioneer you are. How does that feel?

They get really encouraged seeing other women succeeding behind the 'boards and on the decks who aren't just up there singing. This combination is still relatively rare for a woman in the music industry, which is shocking to me, and there are still only a handful of active female film composers.

Why do you think that is?

I can only guess that women just aren't taken as seriously by the industry. But I can tell you that I've had an enormous response from aspiring and established female DJs, songwriters, musicians, and producers. They are out there with as earnest an interest and potential skills to offer the industry as their male counterparts.

And women are definitely becoming more visible in all areas, finally! I've been especially impressed by an engineer at Rusk Studios in Hollywood named Jill Tengan, and I mastered Covert Movements with Patricia Sullivan Fourstar at Bernie Grundman Mastering [one of the top three mastering studios in the world.] Patricia is the first female mastering engineer I've come across, though the folks at Avalon Audio turned me on to Emily Lazar in New York. She's another mastering engineer who clearly kicks butt. Female DJs are definitely on the rise, and there are female artists like Missy Elliot taking control of their sound [and realizing] that the vision for their sound bears no relevance to a particular gender.

Do male DJs and musicians approach you with the same sort of feedback after your performances?

Yes. Honest enthusiasts come in all flavors.

Air America Radio interview
The Angel and Bart Everly at the Air America Radio studios: "I very much have an underdog's mentality and believe if you really have a passion for something that you will find a way to realize that passion against any odds."

The Angel's QuickTip 1: Cloning Studio Hard Drives

"Mac OS X users should copy their system drives to another blank, formatted drive on a weekly or monthly basis," says The Angel. "That way you can just swap out the drives and literally be back up and running on a session in minutes if your system ever stops working, rather than taking hours to reinstall everything from scratch. If you're in the middle of a time-sensitive project, those hours can be lethal."

The Angel regularly uses a donationware utility called Carbon Copy Cloner to create backup clones of her main system drive. "It is critical to clone your drive before installing a new software upgrade," she cautions. "Better yet, wait to see what the user consensus is about it before jumping at all the alluring new features. Sometimes patience can really save you some big headaches. For instance, I recently upgraded a piece of software and it was obvious within minutes that the system was no longer stable. But, thanks to having used Carbon Copy Cloner just before I installed the upgrade, I was immediately able to revert back to my clone drive and pick up the session right where I left off."

The Angel's QuickTip 2: Incremental Health

We've all heard the "save early, save often" mantra, yet we often ignore it and get burned. Backing up doesn't have to be hard. Most DAW programs can be set to automatically create incremental saves, with each uniquely named in a "history" list you can jump back to. But what about all the soft synths, effect plug-ins, and other applications running alongside the DAW? You should make a habit of saving their settings frequently as well—to new files.

"This is extremely fundamental and the importance cannot be stressed enough," The Angel says. "Try to continually save your project or song names incrementally regardless of what programs you are working with. It's easy to overlook, especially in this day and age of running several applications on one computer at the same time."

The Angel began working with MachFive, MOTU's powerful sampling program, at the same time she was learning to use numerous other new plug-ins. Temporarily overwhelmed by all the new terminologies and features she was learning, she unknowingly broke her own incremental saving rule one day and it cost her dearly.

"I saved all of my Performance settings in MachFive as one name and continued to update those Performances with the same name with each save," she explains. "That's a big no-no! Even though my Pro Tools session for that song was being incrementally saved as I went along with the composition, I wasn't all that up to speed yet with MachFive and was distracted by all the other new toys I had. For the first time in years I wound up getting caught out when a system crash corrupted the settings. I didn't have an incremental history of those Performances to go back to."

How did she remedy things after that crash?

"I've again ingrained that 'Command-S' [save] combo with the thumb and index finger to the point that it's moving independently of my brain," The Angel admits. "I've been rescued by having multiple versions of my Pro Tools tracks and other applications' settings many a time where I was able to go back one version before the system crash and pick up the pieces from where I left off. That way it is almost impossible to lose valuable settings and performances, but, as we all know, there is always that occasional painful exception that is put in our path just to remind us, eh?"

Sidebar: Tools of The Angel

DAW

  • Digidesign Pro Tools|HD 3
  • Digidesign Control24
  • Digidesign 192 I/O
  • Apple G4 1.25 MHz
  • Atto Express PCI DC

Software

  • Digidesign Pro Tools v6.4 cs9
  • BIAS Peak
  • Native Instruments Pro-53
  • Propellerhead Reason
  • MOTU MachFive
  • Sound Quest MIDI Quest
  • Trillium Lane Labs TL Space
  • Waves Masters Bundle
  • Digidesign Massive Pack 3

Interfacing

  • MOTU MIDI Express XT
  • Aardvark AardSync II

Speakers

  • KRK V4
  • KRK S8
  • Event Electronics 20/20 bas

Processors

  • Avalon 737SP
  • Lexicon PCM-70
  • TC Electronic Fireworx
  • Symetrix 606 Delay FX
  • Tech 21 PSA-1 SansAmp

Recorders (Standalone)

  • Alesis ML-9600 Masterlink
  • TASCAM DA88
  • Panasonic SV3700

Microphones

  • Neumann TLM-103
  • BLUE Blueberry

Instruments

  • Roland JV880
  • Korg Trinity Plus
  • Clavia Nord Lead 2
  • Akai S6000
  • Schecter S-1 Elite
  • Double bass with Barcus Berry 3150 transducer

DJ Equipment

  • Technics SL-1200mk2 x2
  • Pioneer DJM-500
  • Denon DN-2000F Mk III
The Angel by Wall

The Angel: Music Examples

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