Jez Wilkinson — Aerosolik Records
Jez Wilkinson is a busy man. Not only is this likeable 32‑year‑old a full‑time psychiatric nurse, he also juggles running a fledgling hip‑hop label, Aerosolik Records, with producing and playing bass for the label's in‑house band. Oh, and he's got an impressive studio setup in his basement.
Aptly nicknamed Daddy J, Jez heads up a large body of collaborators. Taking in friends and band members, label signings, graffiti writers and DJ contacts, the whole Aerosolik vibe is one of family and community. So, on arriving in a sunny but windswept Scarborough, I wasn't too surprised to find the living room of Jez's three‑storey semi filled with people. It seems that a visit from SOS provided a good enough reason to get the majority of the extended Aerosolik crew together. After a quick stroll down the street for a few photos, the Aerosolik massive are duly shipped off to the pub and I corner Jez, co‑producer Jon Land and engineer Ketch in their extensive basement studio.
Into music from an early age, and heavily influenced by his jazz‑loving father ("music was there from the moment I woke up to the moment I fell asleep, seven days a week"), Jez started piano lessons as a child, only to give them up — "I hated them" — and learn the double bass instead. After discovering the joys of funk, electro and hip‑hop, Jez began to DJ, travelling to regular gigs in Brighton, and even broadcasting for a pirate radio station in Leeds. But it was making music that really interested him: "It was always my dream to have a dedicated space for music. Like most people, I started in my parents' back room and built my kit up gradually." And when Jez and wife Laura started looking for a new house, his plans for a project studio were at the forefront of his mind. "I bought the house because of this space," he says, gesturing around the studio. "Also, I wanted to buy something in town so everyone would know where we were and could be involved."
Consisting of a control room and separate live room (complete with two‑way talkback and monitor), the Aerosolik studio is an impressive achievement, of which Jez is justifiably proud: "I live here, I built it, I put everything into it. All my wages go on it — it's been sweat and blood.
"The studio wasn't like this in the beginning. This room was just rubble, basically. We stripped it all down, re‑bricked it, and insulated the dividing wall with a rock‑hard setting rubber solution, so that next door wouldn't suffer any noise." But the fledgling studio only consisted of one area, which is now the control room. "We used to play here, the whole lot of us. We had the drum kit set up and eight people in this one room." "It used to be outrageous," laughs Aerosolik's engineer Ketch. "It was so crammed, and there I was stuck in the middle, trying to record all these mics."
Something had to be done and Lady Luck was just about to present Jez with a welcome surprise. "We had heard a lot of rumours, from old neighbours and people who lived in the local area, that there was an extra room in the basement. So we looked around next door, and at a couple of similar houses in the area, and discovered they had a kind of coal room that ours was missing." Desperate for space, Jez knocked a small hole in the basement's dividing wall, so that a camera could be inserted to see what lay beyond. "What we saw was loads of rubble but there was definitely a room." Overjoyed with their discovery, they enlisted the help of friends to knock through into the room, clear the rubble and install a double‑glazed door. Jez laughs: "We had to shut off the studio and totally seal it for two weeks. All my kit was sealed in here and we were out there. It was murder."
Although a newly discovered live room was a welcome solution to the space problems, it still managed to cause a few hiccups of its own, as Jez explains: "We only realised that there's a chimney going into the room last year, when a couple of gallons of water came through it — so we had to have it capped off." It was also a strange thing to explain to his insurers. "I called them to say I had found another room to include on the policy and their response was: 'What do you mean you've found a room? You can't just find a room!'"
As far as its sound qualities go, the live room is still undeveloped. "We haven't really done any proper acoustic treatment to make sure that the waves are right, so it's still got a sound of its own," says Ketch. "It's a bit too 'live' at the moment, but it's only just been done and we haven't had time to get in there and put dampers in the right places. We'll never get a totally dry, 'in ya face' drum sound as it stands, but it's decent enough." Jez agrees: "We've ordered a load of carpet tiles and we're going to start messing about doing some sound checks and recordings, but basically it's all about time and money. We're learning new stuff constantly."
Mics, Solder, Action
A good example of the Aerosolik DIY attitude can be found in the three converted Realistic PZM mics that Jez still uses today. Bought from Tandy when money was tight, the mics were adapted using directions from an article found in an old recording magazine. Ketch takes up the story: "I converted those mics from the magazine diagram. They cost 30 quid each and they ran on a 1.5V battery. If you shove the voltage up to 12V, using two 6V batteries, the dynamic range almost doubles.
"So I thought, 'I've seen the jump from 1.5V to 12V, so how would the dynamic range increase if put it up to 48V?'" Stripping the mics down, however, proved to be far from easy. "Inside, the case is about three‑quarters of an inch long and not even half an inch wide. The actual mic capsule is less than the size of a cigarette in diameter, with an outer ring for the earth and two signals in the centre. I had to bridge the earth to the centre with one strand of wire, while trying to hold the mic, the case and a soldering iron. It was totally ridiculous; we thought there was no way it would work — but the mics do. The noise level's gone down, the top end is smoother and more natural, and the dynamic range is massive." Worth the burns, then? "Oh definitely," Jez affirms. "We got all three mics for £90. We used to use them to record vocals in the hallway before the live room was installed, but now we've two overhead on the drum kit and one on the hi‑hat. Until we get a bit more cash to pump into better mics, we're still happy to use them."
Having a fully working studio in your basement would be a dream come true for many of us, but it can also throw up some unexpected problems that have to be dealt with, as Jez points out: "Because we're underground, we have to have two dehumidifiers going 24 hours a day to keep the moisture out. One is in here (the control room) and the other is in the live room, to keep the drum kit and instruments in good condition. I also have a special gas fire fitted with a catalytic converter — we leave that on 24 hours a day to ensure that the temperature down here stays constant all the time." Wise precautions indeed. "Well, I've spent a lot of money, and every bit of kit I own is in this studio."
Programming and production duties for GR Collective, Aerosolik's in‑house band, are shared jointly by Jez and Jon, with Ketch coming in to man the faders during any live recordings or mixdowns. Jon has been a house and techno DJ for over ten years, and continues to gig regularly (he also plays a mean didgeridoo), while Ketch has played in and recorded bands since his teens. I asked Jon what he thought his techno background brought to his style of production for Aerosolik. "I tend to work a little more on the structure of the tracks," he says, "how they work on a dance floor, as well as adding acid lines or synth noises to give a bit more crossover appeal." "Jon will layer and layer until the cows come home," Jez adds, "whereas I'm more of a minimalist. Bringing him onboard gives the tracks a more up‑front edge."
Jez talked me through the process of putting together a GR Collective track: "First, we get a click track going in Cubase, and then we'll get the whole band together and just jam away. We'll have Phil [drums], Gav [guitar], AD‑1 [vocals], Jon [keys] and myself [double bass or keys] all in the studio, with maybe DJ Kista or The Boy Webb on the decks. Everything gets recorded straight to DAT, and I'll go back over the tapes after a couple of days to see what worked and what didn't. Then we'll call the crew back in individually to re‑record their parts." As you can see, GR Collective are comfortable using live instrumentation alongside the turntable trickery and sequencing. Combining the two elements is a crucial part of the collective's 'sound' as Jez explains:
"As a producer I like to use a combination of live instruments and samples. I give Phil a click or a sampled loop to play along to, and we'll record the result. Then I'll listen back over the session and pick out the tightest bits, or those loops that work well, and send them to the sampler, compress them, or import them into VST, whatever they need."
The newly installed live room makes the whole job of working with such a large band much easier, as Jez points out. "The way things were set up before, if Gav wanted to come in and do a bit of guitar work, or Phil wanted to jam on the drums, everything would have to stop. Now we have the live room we can get on with programming, and they can practice to their hearts' content; they can even become a pub band if they want, once that door's shut [laughs]."
The actual job of recording the various live elements falls to Ketch. "I've always been interested in recording and I'm not biased about what type of music I work on. I don't actually take part in the writing side of GR Collective so that frees me up objectively; I'm not dealing with the musicality of the track — just the technical side. I just try and get the maximum signal into the recorders without them overloading it. To me that's the whole point — to ensure that the signal gets in as clean as possible and comes out as clean as possible, with nothing in the way to colour it."
All Geared Up
With my time in Scarborough drawing to a close, and the rest of the crew due back for what would turn out to be a rather worse‑for‑wear Internet radio show, I asked each of the lads about their favourite piece of kit. Ketch had no doubts: "The Focusrite Voicemaster mic preamp. It's so clean, you can put your guitar through it and it'll sound amazing. Vocals come out thick and full‑range and you can abuse the sound if you want, bung on a bit of distortion, and see what happens. I'd read about it in reviews and suggested to Jez that we bought one. We originally tested it out on vocals using the PZMs, but we didn't really know how good it was until we got the Joe Meek mic and ran that through it." Jez nods in agreement: "I run the double bass through the Voicemaster with a PZM stuck on the bridge. It just adds a whole new warmth to the sound."
Jon's favourite, perhaps unsurprisingly with his techno background, is a synth: the Novation Supernova 2. "It's the ease of use, the fantastic analogue sounds, and the hands‑on control — being able to manipulate the filters. We use it for bass lines. It's got some hellish bass on it."
Finally I come to Jez, who is moaning about only being able to pick one piece of kit so, feeling generous, I let him pick two: "I've got to choose my S2000 first. It was my first bit of serious kit and I know it inside out. If I come up with an idea I can sample it in straight away." And the other? "The Emu Mo' Phatt. This is one of the best sounding modules that's come onto the market. All your classic drum sounds are there. It's been made by musicians for musicians. If you get inside the machine — and you should do — it's got real power."
As I prepared to leave, Jez was in full Daddy J mode, setting up for the impending radio show, but before heading south I asked about Aerosolik's plans for the future. "Basically we're looking at getting away from the town and into the sticks, maybe converting a barn into a studio. That's our kind of five‑year project." He laughs. "I'm called Daddy J because of my extended 'family', but without everyone pulling together things just wouldn't work. It's hard, but we love it."
- Apple PowerMac 7200 computer
- Akai S2000 sampler
- Roland VS1880 digital recording workstation
- Emu Mo'Phatt sound module
- Soundcraft Folio F1 16:2 mixer
Big On The Mac
For sequencing, Jez uses a Power Mac 7200. I asked him why he chose a Mac over a PC.
"When I started getting into producing music seriously, a close mate of mine introduced me to his Mac setup. I loved the way it ran, and I basically decided to go down that route. I've been a Mac man ever since. I've got Logic installed on the iMac, and I've been dabbling about with it, but I recently cleaned up the Power Mac and all I have running on it is VST, which I use just for sequencing — all the audio is outboard." When I ask why he doesn't use the software's audio capabilities, Jez laughs: "I've enough stuff to manage as it is!"
Complete Gear List
|CONTROL ROOM||• Technics SH‑DJ1200 DJ mixer|
Label, With Love
As if Jez wasn't busy enough, Aerosolik are preparing to press their third release, a four–track vocal 12‑inch featuring the crew's resident rapper, AD‑1. As a label, Aerosolik prides itself on a surprisingly eclectic view of the hip‑hop genre. Their last release, a CD compilation showcasing the label's roster of talent, entitled Situation Stylers, includes a mixture of downbeat instrumentals, up‑front vocal cuts and more left‑field breaks. I asked Jez why he wanted to start a label, on top of everything else. "As an independent hip‑hop label based in the north of the UK it's been a struggle, but I've always been business minded, and I see Aerosolik as the only productive way of getting our music out to the public." However, Jez is still realistic about the UK hip‑hop market. "All of us involved in Aerosolik work hard, but we're all aware that there just isn't the money in the UK scene at the moment. We're just a small blip in the abyss, but at least we're having a go."
Webbed Beats: Internet Radio
Like most new or up‑and‑coming labels, Aerosolik have fully embraced the Internet as a promotional tool. Their extensive web site (www.aerosolikrecords.co.uk" target="_blank) allows Jez to preview forthcoming tracks, sell direct to the public, and promote a nifty line in label merchandise, including T shirts, caps and the (in)famous Aerosolik mug. The site is also home to Aerosolik web radio: four pre‑recorded shows that stream in RealAudio. The 45‑minute shows are updated regularly and range from mixes by established artists like Skint Records' Scratchy Muffin to their very own relaxed, in‑house showcases of UK hip‑hop/beats talent, both signed and unsigned. Jez explains how the shows come about: "Firstly, we like to work in a relaxed atmosphere. We have a laugh and never want the shows to become a chore.
"Each show is recorded live, straight to the Tascam DA20. The only processing we use is our dbx 266XL compressor/gate, which puts a subtle limiter on the mix. Then if we're happy with the show's levels and content we'll burn it on to an audio CD and pass it onto our web designer, Tye Brown." The audio CD is then converted to AIFF format, then again to RealAudio. This file (of about 30Mb) is uploaded to Aerosolik's RealAudio server, that allows multiple audio streams to be downloaded at the same time. In fact, it was after seeing an earlier SOS Readerzone feature (December 2000, featuring UK Garage FM) that Jez settled on a server based in Atlanta USA. "Apart from a few teething difficulties, such as the time difference, it all seems to work perfectly."