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Posts by Mdavisto

Phelo Bala – Look Like A Fool

If you google Phelo Bala, you’ll typically kick up a lot of links that talk about his siblings and their extensive careers, always framing him in the context of their achievements. You’d be forgiven, then, if you developed the impression that Phelo is a small man standing on the shoulders of giants – that Bala name does carry a huge legacy.

You’d be completely wrong, though, which is why I’m not going to mention those other Balas here (no disrespect guys, you know I love you).

Phelo Bala has a lot going for him. He was born into a uniquely musical family, a gift he has inherited and nurtured. He’s young and full of energy – at the time I write this he is only 20. Some will misjudge him based on this, thinking that his youth translates to inexperience.They’re wrong, too.

Only 20, yes, but he’s been singing in front of audiences for more than half a decade. Although this is his first solo outing, his previous projects mean he already has significant stage time under his belt, not just in local venues around the country, but internationally too. When you go to see him, then, you’re not going to be looking at someone cutting their teeth – Phelo is a class act. His youth does make him easy on the eyes, a fact that neither his label nor his fans will have missed.

Nor, for that matter, are you going to be watching someone lip syncing along on an empty stage to an over-produced backtrack – Phelo does everything live, with real musicians. I am old enough to remember a time when such things were taken for granted; they are now an exceptional rarity.

But along with strong chops, a great, controlled voice and a face for TV, Phelo has also been blessed with talent. He isn’t merely an accomplished performer, he’s a writer too – his debut album, due out later this month, is the product of his own pen. It’s enough to make you sick with jealousy.

He is uniquely poised, then, to take the market by storm, and I have every expectation that he will do just that. You will forgive me, other Balas, for my prediction that if I google you in a few years, I’ll find you being referred to as relatives of Phelo Bala.

Phelo B – Look Like A Fool by mdavisto

Anyway, let me bring it back for a moment to the technical side of things. I was approached a few weeks back to take a run at Look Like A Fool, the first single off Phelo’s new album. The song had already been recorded, with extremely strong vocals and good flow, but Phelo’s producer (dude, this article is about Phelo, shhhhh) felt it needed to go in a different direction.

I have a tendency to go very electronic, but I could hear straight away that this would not be the right approach for this song – it needed to stay as organic as possible. I took the parts into the newly released FL Studio 10 to see what I could get up to. I ended up discarding  the drums and most of the existing synths (although I kept most of the actual chord progressions), but the guitar parts worked for me, although not in their original form.

Slicex in action

I used FL’s SliceX plugin to do two main things. Firstly, what was most appealing to me about the guitars were the harmonics – so I basically just focussed on those and built a new rhythm around them. In the picture you can see that although the sample is sequentially sliced, the arrangement is anything but.

The other thing I did with SliceX was re-quantise the groove of the mute guitar parts. Not because the guitarist is out – they’re bang on time in fact – but because I wanted more ass-shaking swing in it.

FL Studio 10 has introduced two new plugins for vocal manipulation called Pitcher and Newtone. I view their addition with some scepticism, because Pitcher is an automatic retuner that works exactly like the infamous Autotune plugin – turn the knobs all the way over and you have an instant generic T-Pain vocal. To my ears, it’s like nails on a chalkboard.

Pitcher also, however has a neat feature that lets you dictate its output via MIDI: play notes on your keyboard, and your vocal comes out in that melody. I had a lot of fun experimenting with this for the chorus harmonies, although I ended up going with Newtone instead.

Newtone does a similar job, but not in realtime. It lets you get right into the melody and edit what’s there, but in a much more controlled way than Pitcher does. It’s a lot like Melodyne, although its monophonic only (at this stage). So in the end, I cloned the chorus line and used Newtone to create harmony parts (“… so happy … so angry”). It’s all Phelo, and it’s all the same recording, but it ends up sounding like there’s a harmonising choir of him.

This was a great project to work on – I had a lot of fun doing it.

They Fall Right Out Of The Sky (Mdavisto’s Mix)

Lauren Moore is, by her own admission, a huge nerd. But that’s a good thing – I like nerds.

Hailing from Indianapolis, USA, Moore is in fact a very special kind of nerd, in that she’s made her debut release a concept album based on the cult science fiction show Firefly, from everyone’s favourite cult show creator, Joss Whedon. If you haven’t seen the show, well, what is wrong with you? Go buy the box set, now.

Under the band name ‘Verse, Moore’s project is a collection of songs that, without being obvious, tell stories from the paradigm of the show, often speaking with the voices of the characters. The styles vary wildly from song to song, all experimentally electronic, with strong pop flavours, but all held together with Moore’s smooth, expressive vocals.

Whether you’re a Browncoat (a fan of the show), a new recruit (yet to watch) or an ignorant cretinous philistine with no friends and body odour (not a fan of the show), ‘Verse’s debut album is quite extraordinary listening. Her talents lie not only with beautiful delivery, but with lush vocal layering and haunting harmonies.

However, on this remix project, I took the very laidback “They Fall Out Of The Sky” and put it squarely in the club. Moore’s spacey lyric allows this. Bizarrely, that involved slowing the vocal down a little, even though the track is faster and trancier (in a sort of Dutch way).

Production nerds among you will be interested to note that this was made using the FL Studio 9.7 beta (the precursor to FL 10), and utilises the upcoming Newtone and Pitcher plugins. I used Newtone for adjusting the vocal timing (the original is swingier), and Pitcher for shaming my family and my honour by doing Autotune effects.

My take on the upcoming FL Studio version is that the expanded mixer does the same job it ever did, but is easier to view and use now. Clips user? You’ll love it. Blocks user? You’ll whine on the forums. Then you’ll grow up and learn to use clips.


They Fall Right Out Of The Sky (Mdavisto’s Mix) by mdavisto

PS: Browncoats will recognise Kaylee’s perspective in this track.

LoneRaynger – Heavy Daze (Mdavisto’s Mix)

So, I did another track with super talented Ray Connell (aka LoneRaynger). My last piece of work with LoneRaynger can be found here, back when he was calling himself Mr Ray.

For those who are just encountering LoneRaynger for the first time, he’s a frighteningly talented songwriter, singer, beatboxer and guitar player. Catch some of his work on Facebook, Soundcloud, or YouTube, or follow him on Twitter. At the time of writing, LoneRaynger is currently touring Canada – look out for him in the Vancouver area. He’s keeping a blog of his touring escapades, which shenanigans have included his tour van catching fire (it doesn’t get much more rock ‘n roll than that).

Working with LoneRaynger’s material presents the usual challenge – how do you produce it up to a level of glossiness while still maintaining the organic feel of what he does naturally with his mouth and his guitar? I ended up taking the material a bit further from its organic roots than I originally intended, but I tried as far as possible to keep it grounded in the original performance.

The obvious way to do this was through the rhythm. For the first verse, the beat is 100% LoneRaynger: that’s his beatboxing under there. Thereafter, I open the track up with bigger drums and more synths – but I used SliceX (a beat slicing plugin for FL Studio) to chop up his beatboxing and use elements of it throughout the track. That’s Ray’s mouth-snare you’re hearing driving the track along throughout, as well as his tsp tsp mouth-hihats and periodic mouth-sidesnare action.

In my ongoing effort to actually create synth sounds rather than modify existing ones, I made the bass sound using TAL-BassLine, a very excellent and free synth from Togu Audio Line, and fattened it up using TAL-Tube, also free. The kick and 808-ish hat are generated using Synthmaker, and the morphing pad is hand-filtered for better rhythmic control. Sundry FX were also made using FL’s 3OSC synth.

The end result is a lot more mellow than anything I’ve produced recently, and extremely satisfying.

Check it out. If you like the track, you can purchase it here.

LoneRaynger – Heavy Daze by mdavisto

Set thine house in order

Facebook is a very unique environment. Not only can you scrutinise the minutiae of other people’s lives, but you can watch them installing viruses on their computers in real time. Fascinating.

Now, among my friends, I am “that guy”, the dude you ask when the compootar does that thing again. It gets tiring (and more than a little frustrating) repeating the same stuff over and over again, particularly since it mostly gets ignored the next time some jackass on Facebook purports to show you Who’s Viewing Your Profile, the Shocking Thing Someone Said, or OMG You Have To See This, all of which somehow involve clicking through to an external site.

Since I cannot – and, arguably, should not – prevent people from making mistakes they refuse to learn from, I’ve condensed my standard  recovery advice into a short article on how to take care of the problem of unwanted virus and malware infections.

Read it here.

Remix: TKZee’s Dikakapa (Mdavisto’s Mix)

In South Africa – in fact, anywhere on the continent – TKZee needs no introduction. They are arguably one of the most significant kwaito acts of all time, and certainly one of the highest achieving, with a career that spans more than a decade and a half. They’ve racked up so many awards that they can probably afford to use them as doorstops by now.

Outside of SA, though, the phenomena may need a little explaining. Kwaito is a form of dance music indigenous to South Africa, and is a close cousin of House music. In fact, during the 1990s many Kwaito DJs would spin International tracks, but would slow them down a few semitones, resulting in a more laid-back groove.

There are bigger differences, though. International House tends to emphasise the on-beats – the 1,2,3,4 of the rhythm punctuated by the kick drum. But Kwaito lives in the spaces in between, focusing instead on the upbeats. It also has a distinct vocal styling not found in any other genre of dance.

Dikakapa was the second single off TKZee’s latest opus, “Coming Home,” released on the back end of 2009, and you can check out the original music video here. Incidentally, if you like kwaito, you can grab a copy of “Coming Home” here.

I wanted to make it more accessible to mainstream club play, but still maintain a strong flavour of its origins that would permeate the palette of electro sounds I’d chosen to work with. I achieved this (at least, I hope I did) largely with the underlying structure of the bassline, and with a heavily pitch-bent synth tone that I put together to compliment Magesh’s vocals, a sound that serves as a responding voice to his call.

Play the track before I intellectualise it to death. This one is banging.

TKZee – Dikakapa (Mdavisto’s Mix) by mdavisto

The Dance of Madness

This is a hybrid orchestral / pop piece I arranged for the stage show, “Silence of the Music”, produced by Desert Rose Music.

From the marketing blurb:

Silence of the Music is a ground breaking musical drama set in 2030 South Africa and tells the tale of an elderly couple whose intercultural marriage was spurned [...] by their families, friends and broader community. The story of Maria, a music composer (played by the inimitable Michele Maxwell of Isidingo and Scandal fame) and Khalil, a cab driver (played by veteran actor Farouk Valley-Omar – 10 000 BC, Tree of Life) reflects on the multitude of challenges they’ve experienced, through their love for each other, and their common love of music.”

The song was written by Lynne Holmes-Ganief, and features vocals by noted oratorio soprano Antoinette Blyth, who directs Cape Town’s Philharmonia Choir. It also features additional violin performances by François Luc Arzul, first violist of South Africa’s National Symphony Orchestra.

The rest of it is, of course, produced through the magic of very large sample libraries and the investment of far too much time, a sprawling monolith of a project that eats more than 70 tracks in my mixer. On this piece I used East West’s Symphonic Orchestra, legato patches from VSL’s Opus 1, and the very excellent TAL Bassline VST, which is available for free here.

Silence of the Music is on at the Baxter Theatre from late September through October 2010.

Dance of Madness by mdavisto

My Coolest Piece of Audio Gear

I’m currently working on a number of projects which for various legal reasons can’t be posted here yet. In the meantime, lest you think I have vanished, I’d like to post about the coolest piece of audio gear I own.

It was built in the late 1990s by a good friend of mine (Hi RoverT!) as a dedicated interface for a piece of revolutionary software that was blowing all of our minds at the time: Propellerheads Rebirth. For those of you younger than a certain age, you have to appreciate that this app came out right at the dawn of the VST-engorged era we now live in. Rebirth is dead simple: it simulates a bunch of classic Roland gear: two TB-303 bassline synths, a TR-909 drum box, and an 808. It provides the same knobs and controls that the original synths had, and it was designed to be real-time controllable.

There was nothing else even remotely like it in 1997. In fact, I’d go as far as saying Rebirth kickstarted the virtual synth revolution. Sure, there were other synths around at the time – VAZ springs to mind (loved that) -  but nothing else had ever been so accessible, so easy to use, and frankly, so AWESOME SOUNDING.

RoverT built a hardware interface for it, so that he could control it live without having to fiddle with a mouse. It was a prototype for a much more elaborate interface that he subsequently built for himself, which had a bunch of sliders instead of knobs. When he completed the next generation, he gifted the old prototype to me.

Check it out:

The Box

As shiny and cool as his new box was, I love this piece of gear more. The fact that it’s built into a cigar box ramps up the coolness factor for me by an order of magnitude.

This controller basically handles Rebirth’s two 303 synths only – one row of knobs per synth. The telephone keypad on the left maps to the pattern controllers for each synths (you had to pre-sequence your notes on the 303) – eight pattern buttons per synth.

The knobs control Filter Cutoff, Reso, Envelope Mod and Decay – pretty much everything you need to make the synth express.

Life progressed and we moved onto other things, but I kept using The Box. After all, it has gorgeous knobs – seriously, they’re far chunkier and solid than anything you find on a dedicated hardware interface today. And they send out standard (although hardware fixed) MIDI messages.

All I have to do is remap them on the software side to whatever DAW or synth function I want to control, and I get to carry on using this epic piece of kit. I cannot imagine my life without it. I will be heartbroken when it finally dies (although, touch wood, it is showing no signs of doing so).

Incidentally, Propellerheads now gives away Rebirth for free as something of a historical oddity. I totally recommend grabbing  a copy, it’s an awesome synth.

Remix: Viltin ft Kitana – “Gyratory”

UK-based DL40 Records commissioned this electro-flavoured remix from me. It’s by a new artist called Viltin, and features vocals by singer Kitana. You can hear the original version of this song on DL40′s Myspace page.

It’s been an interesting project to work on – Viltin’s a very dynamic character with a strong vision of where his brand is headed; I expect big things from him in the near future.

If the woman in the image looks familiar, it’s because Kitana is an alter-ego of Kimberly Dayle, the singer and live performer. She’s well known for her high end impersonations of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilerra and, more recently, Lady Gaga.

Take a listen.

Viltin ft Kitana – Gyratory (Mdavisto’s Mix) by mdavisto

Tutorial: How to record clean vocals at home

Not everyone has access to professional recording studios – and with the sheer wealth of virtual synths available today, not everyone needs one. But when it comes time to lay down vocals, having a quiet space to record them in is indispensable. If you’re thinking about recording vocals at home, I’ve written a quick guide to give you some tips on the best way to go about it. It’s full of neat ideas to give you the best possible quality with the equipment you already have.

Just because you don’t have a pro vocal booth, doesn’t mean you can’t make good, clean recordings. All you need is a little bit of determination and some creativity.

Read the article here.

Remix: Jesta’s “Be Mine”

Jesta is a talented singer and songwriter based in London, England. I have to say, off the bat, that her personal taste and style is a lot harder than this remix suggests – she’s a big fan of the dirtier, more experimental underground dancefloor beats.

I typically ask my clients to list some tracks that they like in the genre we’ll be producing, but beyond that, I’ve also begun asking for examples of music they listen to recreationally, for their own pleasure – it helps me understand their musical headspace.

Well, Jess schooled me. She sent me a list of some of the most interesting, cutting edge beats I have ever had the pleasure of working my way through. Some of them I knew, others were a complete discovery to me and had me bouncing around the studio. If nothing else, Jess has markedly improved the quality of my mp3-player’s playlist.

But “Be Mine” is a gentle ballad. Much as I tried to coax this song into a hardcore format, it refused. It would impishly roll its eyes at me, smirk, and point towards the Beach. I discussed this with Jess, and she was cool to head beach-ward, so I gave in, and followed where the song led, which was all the way to Ibiza. The result is this fluffy, uplifting mix.

Jesta – Be Mine (Mdavisto’s Mix) – Radio Edit by mdavisto