After a short career in hip-hop, Los Angeles-based producer John Tejada quickly embraced electronic music. That was nearly two decades ago and, since then, Tejada's name has become synonymous with ultra-clean production and an attention-to-detail that has earned the respect of fellow producers and music aficionados worldwide.
Over the years, Tejada has evolved from a workflow based around a simple sampling workstation and looping pedal to modern techniques and an arsenal of professional gear. As evidenced by the name of his 2006 album, Cleaning Sounds Is a Dirty Business, technique seems to hold a central place of importance alongside artistic expression; a significant means to an end. His mastery of gear is renown—in a time when many live sets are performed using a laptop rolling through pre-defined sets, Tejada and his long-time production partner Arian Leviste often play shows using nothing but hardware.
We had the chance to catch up with Tejada in late 2008 to pick his brain on some of the more technical aspects of his craft as he was preparing his recently released Fabric mix. He was kind enough to entertain our questions about the evolution of his live performance and studio setups, the techniques he used on his latest full-length Where and also shared some tips for up-and-coming producers about the pros and cons of compression.
My current studio is a combination of software and hardware. MacPro running Logic and Live, hardware instruments I'm using at the moment: Nord Modular G2, Moog Voyager rack, Dave Smith Poly Evolver and Prophet 08, Roland MKS-80, Cwejman S1, Modular Rack with Cwejman, Harvestman, Livewire, Bananalogue and Doepfer Modules, Elektron Machinedrum, Jomox Xbase999, Vermona DRM1 mk3, with sequencers: Doepfer MAQ 16/3 and Frostwave Fat Controller. The rest of the old Roland stuff all quite modified usually lives in the closet now.
My workflow doesn't follow any general rules or patterns. I start songs all kinds of different ways. But most everything is based on designing sounds and going from there. Most of my work in the last four years or so is all pretty much built from the ground up.
That's a nice setup. If you had to prioritize and sell everything except for five items (not including monitors / mixer), what would they be?
I would need my modular, my Cwejman S1, my Doepfer Maq 16/3, my Moog Voyager and my Eventide Eclipse. If compressors counted as well, I may have to keep my bus compressor over the Eventide. Or wait, the Moog, or uhm.... now I'll probably have a stress nightmare.
How often do you use hardware sequencers like the Doepfer MAQ box?
I use them probably in nearly everything I do. A big reason for this is they send CV/Gate out to my analog stuff which gives me much more creative control over midi. I can send channel 3 of the sequencer to the filter in or anything that has CV in and sequence the parameters. It just sounds great. Also drum-wise, I enjoy using one of the drum boxes to sequence with. But since I do come from a piano background, I also many times just enjoy hammering it all out on the keyboard.
What do you use as far as effects in your productions? It seems like you have a good bit of sound generating hardware. Are most of your effects software-based?
I have a SSL bus compressor, Eventide Eclipse which I use a ton and an Eventide Timefactor. I have them both set up as external io in whatever app I'm using. EQ-wise I'm forced to work in the box, but I feel the Waves SSL and UAD stuff keeps me happy enough. I also really enjoy the Soundtoys effects actually programmed by the old Eventide guys. I don't know why, but they have just about the same quality in a plug-in.
How often does your setup change?
I change my setup around quite frequently. It helps to keep things fresh.
What are your feelings with regards to mixing in-the-box vs. outboard? Do you feel yourself gravitating towards or away from hardware?
I got a bit frustrated mixing in the box and started to miss my mixing console. I'm still fighting this battle, but in the meantime I've started using a SPL Mixdream summing amp which is then processed through a SSL Xlogic Bus Compressor. I feel this helps work wonders on my mixdowns compared to daw bounces. I'm interested in both hardware and software—whatever gets the job done right.
Can you describe how you're using the Monome in your live sets?
I just started using the Monome in live sets around March of 2008. I was using a hardware setup before that for, and saw that my boxes were taking a beating on the road, so I was curious to use something simpler to travel with. The Monome seemed like a lot of fun, and it is.
John Tejada's many moods
Digital / Electronic
The main synth sound on the stormer "Labyrinth" from Tejada's latest full-length Where was produced using Logic's built-in software synthesizer, EFM 1. He describes the process: "I don't use Logic as much as I mean to these days and the main thing I miss is that little simple synth. It sounds so good. I think there was an instance of PSP Nitro on top of it or something similar." Tejada also noted that the drums were a combination of a Roland 808 drum machine and Ultrabeat, a software drum machine built into Logic.
Analog / Acoustic
I'm Not a Gun, Tejada's side project in which he plays drums with guitarist Takeshi Nishimoto, consists of almost all acoustic instruments and traditional recording methods. On this project, Tejada remarked on the relatively down-to-earth nature of the recording sessions, saying "I've got a separate room here with my drum kit and an amp which is sort of used as the live room. That's where we have things mic'ed up and just get the best results we can. Nothing too fancy, quite affordable mics and nothing in the way of fancy preamps. The only thing which is quite unique are Takeshi's guitars, which are handmade by Abe Rivera. They are unlike anything I've ever seen. He plays 7 string models."
At first I was using it with the mlr patch, but routed to eight outputs so I could manipulate all the channels on a mixing desk with external effects. That worked quite nicely, but recently I wondered about using an app like Live as a mixer, so using soundflower or jack, I would route eight channels of audio into Ableton.
I did this for a couple of shows, but both audio servers caused huge glitching sounds every 15 minutes or so. I then used the Monome for a couple of shows with a controller script called Monome basic plus that a guy named Jeffrey Harris wrote. It gives you amazing control over clips in Live, although it doesn't give you mlr -type functionality unless you really prepare stuff for a while. I'm still looking for the perfect patch or app for the Monome.
How does your approach to live performance differ when using the Monome vs. the Elektron units?
This was the cool thing about the Monome: Even though it was a computer controller, it's almost like an instrument. I like how it required skill and timing. The sets I was doing with mlr, I could almost do them with the computer screen off. It has a hardware feel. I really enjoy using the Elektron units when I play live with one of my collaborators. I feel that after a couple of years, doing the hardware sets by myself isn't as much fun as when there's two people there to share duties. The main difference is when using the Monome and mlr vs. using the Elektrons. One is all audio and one is all synthesis.
Which do you prefer?
Generally I prefer to edit synthesis parameters when playing live, but the Monome has given a whole new life into editing audio on-the-fly.
Finally, do you have any tips to share with the bedroom producers out there?
The first thing that comes to mind is: "Less is more." What I mean by that is that you shouldn't just stick EQs and compressors on everything. Listen to how all processes effect your transients. Everything is a yin and yang, so whatever you do in one direction could have bad consequences on the other end. Find good sounds to start with. Don't just plan on polishing them up later. If the kick, for instance, isn't carrying the track well unless you have to open four effects to make it work, find a different kick.
Watch all the unnecessary compression. Compression was used largely on live instruments to control their dynamic range since a real drum kit isn't hit at the same velocity every time it's hit, but an electronic instrument for the most part has the exact same amplitude each time it hits. Compressors often add more of an effect rather than gain control. Check first to see if the track really needs all that compression, or if a simple EQ cut might be a better solution.
On the complete opposite side of that spectrum, I'd suggest trying multiple compressors in series. I know guys with huge hardware rigs that use this as their secret weapon and it works with software as well. Some compressors are good for overall gain while others sound great for their attack and release to give the sound a bit of shape. The Bob Katz K-System is worth checking out to get a good idea what your mix should be like in the end and how you should be monitoring.
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