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.