Kojo Samuel: Musical Director

Interview | MD

Published in SOS May 2012
Bookmark and Share

People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers

A leading tour musical director explains how his experience as a producer helps him to prepare hit records for live performance.

Geoff Smith

Kojo Samuel: Musical Director

Kojo Samuel invested a lot of his early years in production and recording, working as a producer, writer and remixer for the likes of Mica Paris, Lynden David Hall and US-based production team Sa Ra Creative Partners. However, the combination of Kojo's production skills, his eye for the bigger picture and his ability as a keyboard player eventually propelled him to a position as a successful musical director for Jessie J, Plan B, The Sugababes, Tinchy Stryder, and a host of other radio A-listers.

When Kojo takes on a project, he starts by carefully choosing his band members. "There's a number of things to look at when choosing a band for a project. Obviously, you need good players who can play the music they need to play, but they must also have a good understanding of the music. For example, when choosing someone to play with an act like I Blame Coco, they have to understand her particular musical genre and also get where she's coming from. Musically and stylistically, the band has got to suit the music.”

Off The Record?

Kojo's preferred means of providing backing tracks to a front-of-house engineer is via two synchronised Alesis HD24s, with one serving as a backup.Kojo's preferred means of providing backing tracks to a front-of-house engineer is via two synchronised Alesis HD24s, with one serving as a backup.

Backing tracks have an important role in live music performances these days, often providing backing vocals, live strings and horns, electronic drum hits, sound effects and sequenced material that can't easily be performed live. Once Kojo has a band line-up sorted, he then goes through song arrangements deciding which parts of the record can come from a backing track, and which will be performed by the band.

"If an artist has a hit single, the record label and the audience will want the live performance of that to sound and feel like the record. I always try to maintain the integrity of the original track by carefully going through the 'stems' supplied by the record company, which can sometimes mean as many as 100 tracks. With that in mind, I make decisions about what to play, what to put on playback and what not to use. Next, I will turn my attention to the keyboard parts. I'll program up the synth sounds to ensure that they sound like the record, not just a generic keyboard preset patch. In general, I'm not happy until it sounds 100 percent accurate, and then if I can better it and make it more dynamic for a live scenario, I will.”

Kojo links what he learned as a record producer to his role as musical director. "Being a musical director is like production: it's about making good choices. Since it became possible for anyone to sequence their own music, people automatically think they can produce their own track, but the actual physicality of pushing buttons is only part of it. The more challenging skill is the choices that you make. For me, making the right choices is the essence of being a good producer and, in the live context, the essence of being a good musical director.”

It's Playback Time

Kojo with Tinchy Stryder, whose records Kojo has helped translate to the stage.Kojo with Tinchy Stryder, whose records Kojo has helped translate to the stage.

Backing tracks, as mentioned earlier, can play a big part in modern live music — but exactly how big a part depends on the type of music. Kojo: "With an artist like Tinchy Stryder, backing tracks are important to capture the studio sound, which is heavily sequencer-based and electronic, whereas with a more rocky artist like I Blame Coco, you can't have too many elements coming off playback, as it doesn't suit the genre. Backing tracks can also be useful when there isn't a sufficient budget to support a larger band: with Plan B, the strings and horns from his album often come off backing tracks, as it's not realistic to take an orchestra everywhere.”

One of the hallmarks of Kojo's musical direction is his careful integration of backing tracks and sample triggering with live elements. I was keen to find out what equipment Kojo uses. "To create the backing tracks, my basic format is to edit in Pro Tools or Logic. It's not uncommon for me to get the unmixed stems from the record company, so when preparing the backing tracks, I have to get the needed parts up to the standard of the mixed record. For that task, I really like the UAD range of plug-ins, which I make use of a lot. If I had to single out a favourite UAD plug in, it would have to be the Neve 1081 EQ. It's a fantastic-sounding EQ that I use a lot, as it works well on all sorts of source material. Once the backing tracks are prepared and mixed, I then bounce them down to an Alesis HD24.”

One of the standard ways for delivering the playback of backing tracks for live sound is with a pair of Alesis HD24s sync'ed together, with one running as a backup in case the other fails. With the Alesis HD24s now discontinued, Kojo feels the live sound industry is crying out for a purpose-designed playback device: "I think it would be great if someone made something specifically for live playback that wasn't computer based, so you don't need to have someone who understands a computer to use it. The great thing about an HD24 is that I can show someone how to use it in 10 seconds”.

Instrumental Variables

For a Carphone Warehouse promotional video, Kojo had to assemble a band of iPad-only musicians to accompany Tinchy Stryder.For a Carphone Warehouse promotional video, Kojo had to assemble a band of iPad-only musicians to accompany Tinchy Stryder.

In addition to preparing backing tracks, key instrument and drum samples are prepared for the drummer by Kojo for live triggering. Kojo's current favourite device for this is the Yamaha Multi DTX12, a sample-playing drum machine. "It has six external trigger inputs, allowing me to use kick and snare triggers and still have four triggers left for the other pads. It loads WAV files off a memory stick, so on day one of rehearsals I can give the drummer a folder of samples I have prepared for the whole set and we can get going straight away.”

Part of Kojo's approach to being a musical director is maintaining a keen interest in equipment, and continuing to learn more about equipment from other musicians. "My role as MD extends to knowing something about all the instruments, for example what different snares and cymbals sound like, what guitar amp is right for a particular sound... That knowledge comes from being in a rehearsal room with musicians, and I will just bug them with questions like 'What cymbals are you using? Why?'”

Kojo believes in the cumulative effect that small improvements can make to a project. He uses a Formula One car race to illustrate his point: "You take two drivers and the difference between each driver in one lap is half a second, which seems absolutely nothing, but after 60 laps the difference is 30 seconds. And to me, that's what music is about; making lots of tiny differences that in the long run make significant improvements to the overall sound.”

On the subject of gear, Kojo has clear favourites. "I'm a keyboard player first, so I am really into synthesizers. My favourite synth is probably the Access Virus, because it's the most versatile virtual analogue out there. It can cover pretty much every sound any analogue synthesiser can make, and I haven't yet come across a sound that I can't make on it. I am also really into Dave Smith Instruments, like the Evolver and the Tetra. I love the concept of what he is doing, making great-sounding modern analogue keyboards and modules that have a small footprint, so you can easily take that big sound around with you. I am also a fan of the Moogs. They've just got that classic Moog sound and in a time where soft-synths suffice for a lot of people, they focus on making performance instruments that feel nice to perform on, with great build quality.”

Touch & Go

"My move from producing to MD'ing wasn't planned, but it's something I enjoy greatly. It suits my personality and allows me to use a number of skills that I've picked up over the years.”"My move from producing to MD'ing wasn't planned, but it's something I enjoy greatly. It suits my personality and allows me to use a number of skills that I've picked up over the years.”

Kojo has worked with many artists, preparing lots of different types of performances. The most unusual I had seen was a video of Tinchy Stryder and his band performing a short set only using iPads! I asked Kojo to explain what happened. "Tinchy's management came to me and said that the Carphone Warehouse had approached them, and wanted Tinchy to perform a whole track with a group of eight or nine people using just iPads. I am an optimist, so I said 'Yeah, I think we can do it.' I spent the weekend downloading apps from the App Store.

"The biggest issues were latency and the graphical size of the keyboards, so although it was possible to get it to sound good, it was still tricky to play. I programmed each iPad and the sounds for the performance, and allocated people roles. Out of the apps I used, my favourite was the Korg iMS20 app, which I used to get the bass sound for 'Number One'. At the time we were doing it, I couldn't find any app that sampled, so I ended up using the iDJ app and exported the stems to it, taking the place of a playback system. When they saw what we had come up with they were like, 'It sounds too good, people will think it's a fix,' so we had to purposely make it feel a bit looser.” (You can watch the performance on YouTube here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfO_eayT79E.)

Live & Let Live

To finish the interview off, I asked Kojo to share his feelings with me on the music industry's increasing focus on live performance. "I think the ability for artists to perform live is really important. They have to really sell the music now, because radio play is not the be-all and end-all that it used to be. There are a number of forms of entertainment media competing for people's attention, so for people to really buy into an act, they really have to be blown away. It's not inconceivable that music could become free at some point, things are kinda coming full circle.

"You talk to people from my mum's generation and they have spent years moaning about the fact that these new kids can't sing, or can't perform, but now artists are having to sing and show that they can perform live in order to ensure that people buy into them. Strong performances can have a huge impact on record sales. When Plan B played the Hootenanny on Jools Holland, the next working day the album shot back up the iTunes chart to Number 2, after being out for over six months. It was clear that some people liked the performance and went straight to iTunes to buy the album.

"I think that a good live show is so important these days. With the whole issue of recording sales going down, there are people who might not buy your record, but will go and see you live. People may not spend £7 on a record, but they'll happily spend £25 to go and see someone perform, so it's important to deliver a show that actually has an impact on people. In this age of downloading, there are kids who have never bought an album. Most just listen to music on YouTube and that's normal to them. My feeling is that the one thing you can't put a price on and that you can't bottle is a live, face-to-face experience. I have seen shows that have changed my life, and that's what keeps you buying into an artist and keeps you coming back. People might not buy a Devlin album but they may see him rapping on YouTube, spend £20 to go see him perform, and then spend £15 on a T-shirt.

"My move from producing to MD'ing wasn't planned, but it's something I enjoy greatly. It suits my personality and allows me to use a number of skills that I've picked up over the years. I get to do everything from arranging to mixing, programming, performing, and much more. I've always loved music. Being able to work with so many aspects of it in one job is fantastic, and I love doing it.”  .

Kojo Online

As well as the artists mentioned in this article, Kojo Samuel is currently working with Katy B, Delilah and Cover Drive. You can keep up to date with his projects, and watch videos of some of the performances Kojo has helped to put together, at his new web site, www.kojosamuel.com.

Similar articles


Matt Robertson: Björk's Musical Director

Thumbnail for article: Biophilia!

Björk's stage show is bizarre and beautiful, and it takes a team of dedicated musicians, technicians, programmers and designers to make it happen.

An Orchestra of Pianos

Maxime Le Guil: Recording Vincent Delerm's Les Amants Parallèles

Thumbnail for article: An Orchestra of Pianos

Under the guidance of engineer and producer Maxime Le Guil, Vincent Delerm forsook grand orchestration for the humble piano — bowed, plucked and hammered...

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Mike Crossey

Inside Track: The 1975 'Chocolate'

Thumbnail for article: Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Mike Crossey

The 1975's chart-topping album is just one of a string of hit debuts engineered, mixed and produced by Mike Crossey.


Ron & Russell Mael: 45 Years In Showbiz

Thumbnail for article: Sparks

From elaborate band arrangements to their pioneering collaborations with Giorgio Moroder, Sparks' music has always been innovative and instantly identifiable.


Will Gregory: Recording Tales Of Us

Thumbnail for article: Goldfrapp

Will Gregory took the unconventional decision to base Goldfrapp's latest album around a single instrument — which he couldn't play!

Kevin Lemoine: FOH Engineer

On Tour With Green Day

Thumbnail for article: Kevin Lemoine: FOH Engineer

Backstage at a major festival in France, we caught up with the man who has been mixing one of the biggest names in punk for the last 14 years.

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Mikey Donaldson

Inside Track: Tamar Braxton Love And War

Thumbnail for article: Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Mikey Donaldson

Love And War was not only a remarkable comeback for singer Tamar Braxton, but a breakthrough opportunity for engineer and mixer Mikey Donaldson.

Jonathan Wilson: Fanfare

Reviving The West Coast Sound

Thumbnail for article: Jonathan Wilson: Fanfare

For Jonathan Wilson, the quality of recorded music peaked in late-'70s LA. His own production career has been a quest to scale the same heights.

Tony Maserati

Inside Track: Secrets Of The Mix Engineers

Thumbnail for article: Tony Maserati

A simple song and an outrageous video turned Robin Thicke from a star to a superstar — with the aid of master mixer Tony Maserati.

Ólafur Arnalds

Composer & Producer

Thumbnail for article: Ólafur Arnalds

Many classically trained musicians have ended up playing rock. Ólafur Arnalds' career has gone in the opposite direction...

Pioneer Of Digital Synthesis

Erkki Kurenniemi

Thumbnail for article: Pioneer Of Digital Synthesis

Years before the Minimoog appeared, a Finnish visionary was already building digital polyphonic synthesizers — and they were controlled by light, skin conductivity and even brainwaves.

Inside Track: Jamie Cullum's Momentum album

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Duncan Mills

Thumbnail for article: Inside Track: Jamie Cullum's Momentum album

Jamie Cullum's sixth studio album, Momentum, sees the British pianist and singer further expanding his stylistic palette.

J. Cole & Juro 'Mez' Davis

Recording Born Sinner

Thumbnail for article: J. Cole & Juro 'Mez' Davis

Hey man, nobody ever asks me about this stuff. I love talking about it, so thank you,” exclaims J. Cole.

Caro Emerald

David Schreurs & Jan Van Wieringen:Recording The Shocking Miss Emerald

Thumbnail for article: Caro Emerald

Tired of trying to make money, Caro Emerald's production team chose to make music they loved. The result was a worldwide hit album...

Inside Track: Black Sabbath 13

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Andrew Scheps

Thumbnail for article: Inside Track: Black Sabbath 13

Under the guidance of Rick Rubin, Black Sabbath returned to their roots. Mixed by Andrew Scheps, the resulting album topped charts worldwide.

Daft Punk

Peter Franco & Mick Guzauski: Recording Random Access Memories

Thumbnail for article: Daft Punk

Daft Punk spent four years and over a million dollars on their quest to revisit the golden age of record production. Mick Guzauski and Peter Franco were with them all the way.

Inside Track: Paramore

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Ken Andrews

Thumbnail for article: Inside Track: Paramore

Ken Andrews won a blind shoot-out against some of the biggest names in the mixing world. His prize: the plum job of mixing Paramore’s acclaimed comeback album.

Nitin Sawhney: One Zero

Recording Live To Vinyl

Thumbnail for article: Nitin Sawhney: One Zero

Vinyl is still the listening format of choice for many consumers. Using it as a recording format is more of a challenge!

Inside Track: Recording Aerosmith

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Producer Jack Douglas

Thumbnail for article: Inside Track: Recording Aerosmith

Their latest album saw Aerosmith return to their roots, with Jack Douglas in the producer’s chair. But it wasn’t all retro...

Beyond The Grave

Janus: Gravedigger Then And Now

Thumbnail for article: Beyond The Grave

Signed to Harvest, Janus made one album — and hated the way it sounded. Four decades later, they finally got the chance to mix it properly...

Shahid ‘Naughty Boy’ Khan

Producing Emeli Sandé

Thumbnail for article: Shahid ‘Naughty Boy’ Khan

Shahid Khan has gone from pizza delivery man to in-demand producer — with a little help from Noel Edmonds.

Inside Track: Mixing the Led Zeppelin Reunion

Alan Moulder | Secrets Of The Mix Engineers

Thumbnail for article: Inside Track: Mixing the Led Zeppelin Reunion

The film of Led Zeppelin’s reunion concert was five years in the making — yet Alan Moulder had only three weeks to mix the entire soundtrack!

Peter Cobbin & Kirsty Whalley

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: 2012 London Olympics

Thumbnail for article: Peter Cobbin & Kirsty Whalley

Underpinning the biggest spectacle of 2012 London Olympic Games was probably the largest multitrack recording ever made. Just how do you mix a thousand-track project?

Mike Stevens

Musical Director For The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert

Thumbnail for article: Mike Stevens

Mike Stevens has worked with some of the world’s biggest pop acts at countless high-profile live events, including the Queen’s recent Diamond Jubilee concert.


Home | Search | News | Current Issue | Tablet Mag | Articles | Forum | Blog | Subscribe | Shop | Readers Ads

Advertise | Information | Privacy Policy | Support | Login Help


Email: Contact SOS

Telephone: +44 (0)1954 789888

Fax: +44 (0)1954 789895

Registered Office: Media House, Trafalgar Way, Bar Hill, Cambridge, CB23 8SQ, United Kingdom.

Sound On Sound Ltd is registered in England and Wales.

Company number: 3015516 VAT number: GB 638 5307 26


We accept the following payment methods in our web Shop:

Pay by PayPal - fast and secure  VISA  MasterCard  Solo  Electron  Maestro (used to be Switch)  

All contents copyright © SOS Publications Group and/or its licensors, 1985-2015. All rights reserved.
The contents of this article are subject to worldwide copyright protection and reproduction in whole or part, whether mechanical or electronic, is expressly forbidden without the prior written consent of the Publishers. Great care has been taken to ensure accuracy in the preparation of this article but neither Sound On Sound Limited nor the publishers can be held responsible for its contents.
The views expressed are those of the contributors and not necessarily those of the publishers.

Web site designed & maintained by PB Associates | SOS | Relative Media