A leading tour musical director explains how his experience as a producer helps him to prepare hit records for live performance.
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.”
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.”
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”.
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.”
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.)
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.”
Audio files to accompany the article.
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