The Dust Brothers changed the course of record production with a new approach to sampling. In their first ever in-depth technical interview, John King and Mike Simpson explain their unique way of making records and open the doors of their remarkable LA studio, The Boat.
In 1989, the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique single-handedly redefined a whole musical generation's approach to sampling. The musical masterminds behind the album were the Dust Brothers, two hitherto unknown college whiz kids who had created the musical backings from collages of their favourite recordings. Paul's Boutique was awash with innovation — it reputedly featured the first recorded instance of intentionally added vinyl crackling noises — and it turned the Dust Brothers into the Godfathers of sampling.
Since then, Mike Simpson and John King's career has taken in a diverse succession of projects including Technotronic's Trip On This (1990), the Rolling Stones' Bridges To Babylon (1997), Hanson's Middle Of Nowhere (1997), Santana's Supernatural (1999), Linkin Park's Hybrid Theory (2000) and Tenacious D's eponymous album (2002). As a staff producer for Dreamworks, Simpson also produced Eels' Beautiful Freak (1996). Perhaps the most influential and artistically successful of all, however, was Beck's 1996 album Odelay. Simpson and King later contributed to the same artist's Midnite Vultures (1999), and their relationship continues to this day with the brand-new Guero, which appears to set them on course for another round of limelight-hogging in 2005.
Meanwhile, the Brothers have also been developing a state-of-the-art recording studio. The Boat was opened for commercial use in 2003; based around a vintage Neve 8028 desk from 1969 and a Pro Tools HD3 system, it has become one of Los Angeles's most happening studios (see boxes).
"My musical background came from collecting records," recalls Mike Simpson, "and sort of studying the sounds and arrangements and the way they were recorded. I grew up in New York listening to black music, and I was there for that famous summer in the mid-1970s when hip-hop started. When I moved out to California in 1978 there was no hip-hop or rapping culture here, so I lived on cassettes sent to me by friends. In 1986 I enrolled in a local community college, where I did a class in electronic music. That was my first opportunity to really do computer sequencing and work seriously with samplers. I'd been doing a college radio show since 1983, during which I played hip-hop music, and I began playing the music I was putting together in class on the radio show. I met John in 1985, and he joined me in putting on the show and putting together tapes."
King and Simpson's hip-hop radio show caught the ear of rapper Tone-Loc. He had just signed to the newly formed record company Delicious Vinyl, who in turn were busy setting up their own studio. Tone-Loc and Delicious Vinyl invited Simpson and King to help out producing records and setting up the company's studio. When their name was about to appear on a record sleeve for the first time, on a single by Young MC, the duo decided on the name the Dust Brothers. Reputedly it's a reference to angel dust, the drug, but this turns out to be only an aspect of the truth.
"King and Simpson are pretty common names," explains the latter, "and we decided that we'd better come up with a cool name. At the time we were bringing back music that no-one was listening to any more, so we wanted the name to be an anachronistic reference to things of the past. While we were working for Delicious Vinyl, many people had been describing our music as 'dusted,' and that's where we took the name from. The state of hip-hop was pretty minimal at the time, and we were doing these very textural, tripped-out, almost hallucinogenic remixes of things. Angel dust was just an additional whacked-out reference that also fitted with what we were doing."
During these first years in the recording studio, the Dust Brothers were predominantly engaged in dusting down, or perhaps dusting up, old favourite records, and giving them new leases of life. They applied their sampling skills with considerable success on Tone Loc's Loc'd After Dark (1989) and Young MC's Stone Cold Rhymin' (1989). Then they hit upon a project that became the landmark Paul's Boutique. Did the duo actually set out to change the music industry, or did they just stumble into prominence? The latter, claims Simpson, with estimable modesty.
"Sampling was just a hobby for us. It was just something we did for fun while we were in college. John was destined to become a genius computer programmer, and I was going to enrol in law school. We never had any intention of making records. I didn't even know what record producers did at the time. In the course of doing samples for Delicious Vinyl Records, every once in a while we put something together that seemed just too dense and too busy and too crazy for a rapper to rap on, and we put these tracks aside as instrumental Dust Brothers tracks. Then the Beastie Boys wandered into the studio, and heard one of these tracks, and they loved it. That's how the album got started.
"Up until that point in hip-hop, people had been using samples very sparsely and minimally. If anything, they would use one sample in a song and take a drum loop and that would be the foundation. But what we were doing was making entire songs out of samples taken from various different sources. On Paul's Boutique everything was a collage. There was one track on which the Beastie Boys played some instruments, but apart from that everything was made of samples. But we never had a grand vision of trying to make groundbreaking music. We just enjoyed making music in a way that was an extension of our DJing, combining two or three songs, but with greater accuracy than you could do with turntables."
The significance of Paul's Boutique is illustrated by a web site (www.moire.com/beastieboys/samples) on which fans have collaborated in spotting all the samples on the album. For the track 'Shake Your Rump' alone the web site lists samples taken from records by Sugarhill Gang, Funky 4+1, James Brown and Afrika Bambaataa, Bob Marley, Paul Humphrey, Led Zeppelin, Harvey Scales, Rose Royce, Ronnie Laws, Foxy and Alphonse Mouzon. ("I think they got all of them," says Simpson.) Yet most of the samples used on Paul's Boutique were cleared, easily and affordably, something that Simpson says would be "unthinkable" in today's litigious music industry. The album will, therefore, always be unique.
In the early 1990s, with anti-sampling legislation and attitudes tightening, the Dust Brothers were mainly busy remixing, while cutting their teeth on engineering, composing and producing. Their increasing fame offered them lots of opportunities to apply these skills, but Simpson admits that they spent several years climbing a steep learning curve.
"It was tough. People asked us why our stuff from the late 1980s sounded so good, and we said that it simply was because the original recordings that we sampled sounded so good. After Paul's Boutique we signed a publishing deal that gave us some money to live, and we took the opportunity to buy a house and build a home studio. We spent three or four years there learning how to record and engineer stuff. Paul's Boutique and Odelay were sort of the crowning achievements, but there were a lot less great records in between."
The Boat, in Silverlake, Los Angeles, was built in 1941 for live radio broadcast. The Dust Brothers acquired it in 1997 and proceeded to completely renovate it. The building looks like a boat — hence its name — and its striking architecture makes it a Silverlake landmark. A quick look at the lengthy equipment list reveals the old-meets-new philosophy behind the place. On the new side there's the Pro Tools Accel system and Pro Control console, Ableton Live software, and a list of Pro Tools plug-ins so long you can't even begin to shake a stick at them.
At the same time, pride of place goes to the 1969 56-input Neve 8028 desk, with 1073 and 1066 modules and four built-in Neve 2254A compressors. There's also a vintage analogue MCI JH114 16/24-track tape recorder, and an astonishing amount of vintage and/or valve outboard gear and microphones. The list is far too long to reproduce here, but is available on the studio web site at www.theboatstudio.com.
"Combining old and new has been our goal as musicians and producers and now as studio owners," asserts Mike Simpson. "We've made our name staying abreast of the latest technology, but at the same time we've used that technology to sample all those brilliantly recorded recordings from the 1970s. As it got more and more painful to use samples, we realised that we were better off creating those sounds ourselves, and the way to do that is to get all the equipment it was originally created on."
"I love collecting gear and have a ridiculous collection of outboard and microphones and instruments," John King fills in. "After I collected all the gear I could handle, I kept finding more, and that's how I started acquiring what we have at The Boat. The old gear has the aspect of a vintage car. It's beautiful, it's historic, there's a definite nostalgia to it."
Yet nostalgia is not the Dust Brothers' driving force. Their bottom line is that analogue, vintage and valve gear still sounds better than even HD digital. What they aim to do with The Boat is marry the convenience and functionality of digital with the superior sonic qualities of analogue.
"The new Pro Tools HD system sounds a lot better than the old system," opines Simpson. "But there's still a huge gap between analogue and digital. HD digital still lacks a certain emotion. The late 1960s and early 1970s probably saw the pinnacle in sound reproduction. The imaging and dynamics are just so much better. Also, I'm sort of a bass junkie. I like it when you can really feel the low end, and with those late-'60s and early-'70s records was the last time you really felt that, at least in the rock and soul stuff. Now everything is so thin and brittle, it makes me cringe when I hear snare and kick drums. Obviously the centrepiece of the studio is the wonderful Neve console. It's such a nice-sounding board. Being able to record and pump channels back through the console really makes a huge difference."
The Boat also sports an impressive array of monitors: Urei 813C, plus Genelec 1031A, Yamaha NS10, Westlake Audio BBSM6 and 10, JBL 4408A, Tannoy AMS 10A and Auratone 2B monitors. All this combines to make it the ultimate mix environment, according to John King. "One thing is that the mixes we did here sounded fantastic everywhere else. I really trust the room and the monitoring, especially the Urei main monitors, which are great. The only thing we've mixed so far at The Boat is Beck's new album and I'm so happy with how that came out. We didn't really use much outboard during the mix, because it was already sounding so great. We used the SSL compressor pretty much on every mix. If nothing else it's a security blanket, and it lets you adjust the levels nicely as the mix is going back into Pro Tools."
The Dust Brothers' house was in Silverlake, Los Angeles. They created their studio in a spare bedroom and, pushing the angel dust reference, called it PCP Labs. The studio existed from 1991 to 2001, and sported a 24-channel Soundcraft Spirit desk. "We loved this board," says Simpson. "We tracked a lot of great songs through this board, including all the songs from Odelay." PCP was split into two control rooms in 1996, with two Yamaha 02Rs in King's room and a 64-input Amek Einstein in Simpson's section.
Despite the legal issues, substantial elements of the Dust Brothers' college-era collage approach to music continued to survive, and with Beck's Odelay they finally found the perfect marriage between this and their newly acquired engineering and production skills. Beck's attitude and way of working gave them a perspective on an additional reason why previous efforts had met with such variable success. The Dust Brothers found that musicians who were not familiar with the new technology often approached recording in a manner that was at odds with their way of working.
"We sometimes would record musicians the way you would traditionally record a live band, and then add samples," Simpson explains. "Not very successfully, I would say. Because for some of the more traditional musicians we worked with, the idea of sampling was sort of foreign, and they wanted to play things right. But we don't necessarily want you to play things right, we want you to play things cool. You play over a groove until you have a good bar, and then we take that bar and loop it. I always say that our best music comes from mistakes that happen. You're trying to do one thing, and then someone makes a mistake and that mistake ends up being the hook of the song, the coolest part of the song.
"Beck really understood the benefits of sampling from the beginning, and he understood all along what our goal was. It's a different mindset for a musician, and Beck really got that. He's totally uninhibited, and not necessarily trying to play it right. He's just trying to play it with attitude and flavour. That makes it easy for us, and it's why we have had such great success in working with him. He really understands the medium and what we do, and hand-delivers us these great out-of-control performances that leave us with tracks that we can draw all these great loops from."
Guero is Beck's eighth studio album, and as on Odelay, Simpson and King worked on almost all of the album's songs. "Beck wanted to do more of a contemporary R&B record," says Simpson. "To me it picks up where Odelay left off. There's a little bit of everything: there are some rock songs, some great hip-hop songs, some great blues-inspired songs, some 1980s dance-inspired songs, and so on. It's a melting pot of all the types of songs Beck loves. Sometimes there will be a few genres within one song. But some songs that were more rock were left off because they didn't fit the mould.
"The way it started was that we had worked with Beck on some songs for Midnite Vultures, and we finished off only two in time to make the record. There were six other songs that were pretty well developed, sometimes only needing Beck to finish his vocals and some sprucing up here and there. Beck loved those songs, and wanted to revisit them. So we pulled them up and took some of them apart and reconstructed them. Pretty much the moment we came into the studio and heard the stuff, the feeling was 'Yeah, let's do new stuff too.' We began this the way we did with Odelay, pulling up loops or samples, pulling out records, saying 'Oh yeah, I want to do a song that sounds like that.' But whereas Paul's Boutique was made from samples, a lot of Odelay and the new record is more based on sound than on the samples themselves. We were after the sound and the vibe more than anything else.
"Our [non-record] samples come from years of tracking. Everything we ever tried or worked on, apart from the Stones' material, which we were forced to turn over, ended up on hard disk. When making backups we would pull out all the beats and other samples and put those on a separate drive. At one point we had one of our employees compile all the samples from throughout our history, and we now have one sample library called Dust Beats, containing all the beats in one folder, and there's a folder with bass grooves, and guitar grooves, and so on. Using Ableton Live you can so effectively scroll through these sample libraries, and see whether they fit."
John King agrees that "the creative process in making the new album was very similar to the making of Odelay," adding, "it was about Mike, Beck and me in a room, having fun, coming up with ideas, then embellishing and finishing them." Yet King quickly goes on to elaborate on the dissimilarities. "The major difference is that we're doing everything with Pro Tools now. For Odelay we used Studio Vision software and Digidesign hardware, with a two-channel interface, so we could only record or play back one or two tracks of live audio at the same time. I had to take everything that we did and convert it into samples that then could be played back with the Samplecell card, and make MIDI notes that corresponded with wherever I wanted the samples to happen. But for the new album we had many inputs and outputs and as many tracks as we wanted. We don't even use a sampler any more, because there are so many tracks. And so we got to layer more vocals and instruments, using multiple mics on instruments, which we couldn't do before.
"For this new album we began songs written from scratch in Ableton Live, running with Pro Tools. I love Ableton. It's a quick way for me to get the ball rolling, and quickly make ideas happen that Beck likes and then plays over. I get that going and then I set up microphones, like the SM57 combined with Neumann 47 or 47 FET for electric guitars — I tend to use 47s on almost everything — sometimes a Royer 122 ribbon mic, using an LA3A compressor, and a 47 with Royer for acoustic guitars, and so on.
"I record all that stuff in Pro Tools, and pick out my favourite things and cut and paste and create verses and choruses. Then I see what Beck likes and start some arrangement. We continue to go back and forth with each other until I feel the song is there, at which I hand things over to the studio's Pro Tools assistant, Danny Kalb, who continues to work with Beck on overdubs.
"On one of the songs, I think it was called 'Emergency Exit', there are all these strange digital artifacts and stretching noises going on that Ableton was making. I think it has some loops that went at half speed. The average person would say 'That sounds horrible, they need to improve their stretching algorithms,' but Beck was like 'Wow, that sounds amazing.' When he says that I just go with it. A lot of the exploratory nature of the work we do with Beck comes from his open-mindedness and eagerness to do new things. The same happened with several effecty plug-ins, like Sound Toys and some of the GRM Tools stuff, which I used for creating crazy, freaky effects. Beck always wanted me to record while I was doing that.
"In terms of the end result, there's more live playing, and it's thicker with sound, but the spirit is similar. One thing Beck remarked on was that we did everything so fast this time. He remembered with Odelay having a lot of time to sit around and write lyrics or melodies, while I was converting playing into samples and thinking about how to make it all work. By the time I was ready for him it seemed like he had a finished song ready to go, and we'd do a first take. But this time he had to sit and listen more to what we were doing, because we would accomplish everything so quickly."
The Boat studio was originally put together for the Dust Brothers' own use, but in 2003, they decided to turn it into a fully commercial operation. "A year after we had The Boat up and running, we found that neither us of was using it that much," explains Mike Simpson. "Instead we spent most of our time at our own home studios so we could be closer to our families. So we decided that it was a shame to have The Boat just sitting there, and began interviewing studio managers."
Enter Adam Mosely, an engineer and producer with an impressive track record in his own right. Cutting his teeth at the legendary Trident studios in the late 1970s, the Briton worked with greats like Phil Ramone, Tom Dowd, Mutt Lange, Steve Lillywhite, Ken Scott, Mike Stone, and many others, recording the likes of the Cure, Wet Wet Wet, Kiss, Rush and so on. "Adam really brought The Boat to life," says Simpson. "He had great ideas and started pulling clients in."
"I thought it was an astonishing place with the most incredible potential," enthuses Mosely. "The Dust Brothers had already bought the most amazing equipment, and would buy even more, and the Neve board was great. It originated in AIR Studios in London, where it had been the second board George Martin ever bought at AIR. Rupert Neve customised it for him. Then it travelled to Sweden, where it was more used in the dance arena. The Dust Brothers located it, bought it, and shipped it back to LA, where it was retro-ed back to its original state."
The Boat was opened as a commercial studio in January 2003, and since then artists like Madonna, Avril Lavigne, Marilyn Manson, Lenny Kravitz, Don Was, and many others have explored its best-of-the-old-meets-best-of-the new characteristics. "I sensed that the industry was going back to a more old-fashioned approach again," says Mosely. "They are wanting to get back to a bigger sound, and away from the mid-range compressed sound. Seeing the equipment in the studio, the opportunity was just a no-brainer. The Neve has such a huge, warm, dynamic sound, it's phenomenal. Combined with the vintage tube gear and microphones, it really enhances Pro Tools HD3, which already has an incredible sound at 88.2 or 96 kHz, with things coming back exactly as you hear them.
"A lot of modern boards don't have the dynamic range of the Neve, and there's a big difference between Pro Tools Sessions that have been recorded here, and elsewhere. But even when people have recorded elsewhere, when they put their tracks back through the Neve for mixing, the sound becomes so much bigger. So what we have done is set up a procedure that makes it possible for people to mix easily via the Neve and have recall. We didn't want to introduce total recall on the board, because of the sound, but I realised that we could create total recall simply by using the oscillator to align the monitor return faders.
"What most people do is mix in stems, ie. mix in Pro Tools to stereo pairs, and send these pairs through the 24 monitor returns on the board. We then align the monitor faders at whatever level people want it to come out at, and they can come back a week or month later and do a recall. We also got the SSL X-Logic FX384 compressor, because it's such a recognised industry sound, and the GML EQ, which is probably the cleanest clearest EQ there is. With the rest of the vintage outboard, and us having every plug-in on the market, people have a complete mix solution here."
With The Boat being almost constantly booked out, the Dust Brothers can hardly get into their own studio any more, and so both have their own, not-to-be-sniffed at home facilities. Their gear mania doesn't only cover "every keyboard ever made", it also extends to a huge collection of vintage and/or valve outboard gear. Much of it is located at The Boat, but substantial amounts are also in use at their respective home studios.
Simpson's "little home studio setup" contains a full Pro Tools HD3 rig, "with a couple of Neve mic pres and LA2A compressors. Basically all the stuff we have at The Boat, minus the Neve desk. I have probably one third of what The Boat has in terms of outboard gear."
"I have converted one of my two houses into a studio complex," King chips in, "where I have two studios. We moved here six months ago. I've always had a studio in my house, and in the last house I lived in we converted this huge beautiful living room into a huge studio [called The Medina]. I have Pro Tools HD3 at my current house, with Pro Control, so I can mix virtually. I also have various Pultecs, a couple of LA2A compressors, a couple of 1176s, LA4A, RCA BA6A, Neve 1073, 1076, Neve stereo compressor, Neve mastering EQ, Manley massive/passive, Manley DI, Manley mic pres, Telefunken V72, V76, Mastering Labs mic pres, Distressor, the SSL compressor and all the great microphones.
"And we use tons of synthesizers. You name it, we have it. They are all hardware synths. I don't like using soft synths. I like to have knobs. I don't really like presets, I like to be able to tweak things. We have every keyboard ever made. Many of them are in The Boat, but we also have them in storage. I have closets here at home that are stacked floor to ceiling with all kinds of crazy keyboards. We have all kinds of Moogs and I'm a big fan of the whole Korg line of keyboards, so I have Korg polysynths and Monopoly. We mostly bought them via eBay, and few of them are MIDI-fied. They are in their original state. I can play them well enough to get something into a computer and make it sound good."
Despite their avalanche of rare and vintage gear, the Dust Brothers wax most lyrically about Pro Tools and especially Ableton Live, repeatedly saying that they now finally have the equipment at their disposal that they have "always dreamed of". "Because of the way I produce things and create things with samples and loops," states King, "especially Ableton is what I dreamed of back in the mid-1980s, when I was using primitive software with numbers flashing across the screen. I had to program it all and it was just so complicated. I knew that the ability would be there to do what Ableton does, which is that you can work with loops and time-stretching in real time. If I have a beat going or even maybe just a tempo running, I can click on Files in my library and then on Samples, and audition beats or music or guitars or basses or whatever, and they will instantly play back to whatever I'm playing.
"In the past I had to pull the sample up, choose which one might work, trim it, tune it, sync it, and after a long process I could decide whether it really was cool or not. Now I just click and instantly hear things from my library playing in sync with the song. It's exactly what I need, and allows me to focus on the creative aspect and not get distracted by technical things."
"The very first sampler we had was a Roland F10," recalls Simpson, "and then we went with the Akai S900. Those were still mono samplers. Then we dabbled with the SP12, the predecessor of the SP1200, and then we had a Roland S770, which I think was the first stereo sampler. We did all of Paul's Boutique on an Emax HD, which was mono and 12-bit and had a 22kHz sampling rate. So we had plenty of experience of the primitive domain of early sampling: low bit rate and low sampling rate. But we've never been in love with the degraded sound of those early machines, we were always trying to make samples sound better. We had Pro Tools in our heads before it even existed. Since both John and I came from a computer background, we knew what computers were capable of, and we were kind of bombed that the samplers were still so lo-fi or hard to use.
"The sequencer we used on Paul's Boutique was very primitive software called Texture by a guy called Roger Powell. This was when computers still had no user interface, it basically was just a bunch of letters and numbers across a green screen. After that we used this very primitive sync box, the JL Cooper PPS1, that allowed us to sync the computer to tape. We also had an Allen & Heath console with very primitive automation with which you could create mute events. So we basically filled all tracks on a multitrack with loops, and arranged songs by using these automated mute things. It was such a painful process. I remember thinking 'God, why couldn't we just have a timeline across a screen and chunks for each sample and a visual representation for the waveforms across the time line? Why do I have to sit here and type all these numbers and MIDI times?'"
John King and Mike Simpson are quite happy to see their old sampling and sequencing gear relegated to the dustbin of history, but they had to go back to their bad old Emax HD for a song called 'Hell Yes' from the new Beck album. "Beck was into a song that I had carried around on a cassette since 1989," King elaborates. "It had been composed on an MPC 60 and the Emax sampler, the same one we used on Paul's Boutique. At the time I had just bought some new records and had pulled a few things and programmed this beat. It was very hip-hop.
"Beck and I decided to use it, and started working with it from cassette, while my assistants and I were frantically searching all storage areas for the original disks. When we finally found them I had to contact the Experience Music Project Museum in Seattle, because we had donated our Emax sampler to the hip-hop exhibit for its grand opening. They sent the sampler back to us, and I popped in the disk and lo and behold, it worked! We also managed to load the MPC60 disk into Mike's MPC2000, so we were able to get a more pure sound than we had from the cassette, which had a lot of hiss on it and didn't have a lot of dynamics."
This might sound like a lot of trouble, but attempting to recreate the original from scratch would have risked losing the magic. "I certainly know better than to try to re-record or recreate things that sound cool," says John King. "Record companies used to do demos, and that's something Mike and I always fought against early in our career. When something sounds great, it's done. You don't want to go back and re-record something that sounds great. The way we recorded with computers in our history, the quality was always good enough. You don't want to repeat golden moments. We always felt like 'We don't do demos, we only do finished product.'"
King still has an MPC 3000 and an MPC 4000, and remarks "It's more fun to have pads to bounce than mousing in notes. But to be honest, I rarely use it."
"We'll do a bit of MIDI programming," Simpson adds, "usually to augment a loop. We may program in some 808 kicks or snares. We also use Reason sometimes to augment beats."
So if Ableton Live has finally made the Dust Brothers' dreams come true, what ambitions do they still hold for the future? Above all, it seems, they'd like to do an album as artists in their own right. One of their soundtrack albums, 1999's Fight Club, was released under the Brothers' own name, but John King stresses that "Fight Club is not a Dust Brothers album, it's a Fight Club album. It was music done for the film and not meant to stand alone. We've been working on a Dust Brothers album since 1987, but songs continually get given to artists we work with. And now we're both so busy with things we're working on, and we both have families, and there's life, that it's hard to get round to doing your own thing..."