In 2020, Vintage King visited Linear Labs, the recording home of accomplished composer, arranger and producer Adrian Younge. We sat down for a conversation with Adrian and talked about how he got his start in music, why he prefers analog gear and the way he seamlessly blends so many different genres together.

Watch our new Make Your Mark starring Adrian below and continue on afterward to read the cover story from Vintage King's new print magazine, PLAYBACK. Limited edition magazines are available at Vintage King Los Angeles and Vintage King Nashville while they last, but you can subscribe digitally here and get a copy of each issue sent directly to your Inbox. Enjoy!

 
To call LA-based Adrian Younge accomplished feels like an understatement, but we’ll start there anyway. Adrian is a composer, arranger, and producer. He owns and runs Linear Labs Studio, which he operates out of the back of a building that also contains his record store and barbershop/salon, The Artform Studio. He just launched a label, Jazz Is Dead, with new recordings from legendary vibraphone player Roy Ayers and Brazilian singer-songwriter Marcos Valle. He works closely with Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest, with whom he is in a band called The Midnight Hour. They’ve co-produced the Luke Cage soundtrack and co-created the first three Jazz Is Dead albums, among other things. Oh, and on top of everything else, Adrian has a law degree. Can you get to all that?

Like many burgeoning artists, Adrian’s journey began in friends’ bedrooms and then his own, experimenting with Tascam 8-track Portastudios in the ‘90s. For Christmas one year, his parents bought him an MPC2000 and an 8-track cassette tape recorder; from then on, it was full steam ahead. Adrian loved hip-hop; his biggest inspirations at the time were DJ Premier from A Tribe Called Quest and RZA from Wu-Tang. He wanted to make beats and started sampling records, making what he called derivative music. “I began to realize I was more inspired by the actual records I was sampling than the derivative music. I realized in order to become the best version of myself, I had to learn how to play instruments,” Adrian said. One or two years later, he started buying them left and right: a bass guitar, a piano, drums.

He planned to mix the instrumentation with samples, but soon enough his original music took on a life of its own. As soon as he was collecting gear, he began growing his knowledge of how to compose and arrange music while honing his natural sonic impulses. After nearly two decades spent sharpening his craft and style, Adrian was finally able to build Linear Labs Studio to his exact specifications. He’s now been there for three years. His previous studios were in built-out garages or basements, the equipment piled atop each other, imperfect spaces forcing Adrian to make his gear work a bit harder. When he finally got the chance to design his own studio, he drew on that experience with less-than-ideal acoustics. The resulting space is set up for the precise sounds he knows he wants.

Key to it all is the quality that analog equipment brings, a quality that is essential to Adrian’s work. He remembered the first time he heard about digital recorders. Excited about the prospect of no longer needing tapes, he rushed to his local music store and bought one. He made a beat as soon as he got home, then immediately wondered what had gone wrong. This was before the Internet turned everyone into semi-pro amateurs; there weren’t many places to find out about the differences between analog and digital. Still, he quickly realized that was his problem: something about the digital process foundationally didn’t work for him.

Adrian took the digital recorder back to the music store and begged to get his cassette recorder back. “From that point, I realized that to make the music I wanted to make, I had to not only learn how to play instruments, but I also had to understand the chemistry of analog recording. Not just tape, but real reverbs, real mic pres, real microphones. It was a moment in my life that I’ll remember forever,” Adrian said.

The first piece of vintage gear Adrian ever bought was early in his career, after witnessing a revelatory Portishead concert. He loved the piano sound he heard, which turned out to be a Fender Rhodes. He was in college at the time and kept the Fender Rhodes he’d purchased in his bedroom, practicing every day. The instrument imparted a critical lesson: when you have the right gear, it will tell you what to do.

Linear Labs grew out of Adrian’s artistic concept that he didn’t need to use samples to make good music. His favorite era of recording is 1968-1973, so all the gear in the studio was chosen and calibrated for that sound. But something was still missing, and the studio wouldn’t be truly complete until he found it. Then it hit him: the orchestra. He loved the way Quincy Jones, Curtis Mayfield, and Isaac Hayes used strings in their music. He needed to be able to bring a full one into his studio. His next step was to research gear and acoustics to recreate the sonic environment of late ‘50s to early ‘60s hi-fi orchestra recordings in his studio, including period-specific condenser mics. Now Linear Labs has two entirely unique, equally impressive set-ups for whenever inspiration strikes Adrian.

Populating it with the right equipment was always key. Once Adrian realized, back in ‘98, that the music which best spoke to him was created with real instruments, he knew he needed to find them. But it went beyond bass, guitar, keyboards, drums. “Real instruments, to me, extend all the way to pro audio, because if there’s a dope compressor, a dope preamp, all these things have sounds,” he said. Instead of following trends in gear or ponying up for the latest boutique brands, Adrian started hunting for sleeper hits among vintage pieces, looking for microphones or preamps no one knew about. This had two advantages: the opportunity for originality with lesser-used items and the benefit of the higher quality naturally imparted by the fact that vintage gear tends to be handcrafted.

“I started developing my sound with this perspective of finding things that speak to me, because everything is an instrument. The tape machine’s an instrument, my compressors are instruments, my microphones, etc. I always say to people, it’s really about the composition, but if you approach recording from the standpoint that there’s nothing more important than sound, watch what it does to your compositions,” he said. Aspiring composers, take note.

Some might call it perfectionism but to Adrian, it’s just his way of being: “When you create music without cutting corners, when you get the equipment that speaks to you not just because it has a name that everybody else loves, because it speaks to you and tells you what to do, you can be the best version of yourself. That’s what Linear Labs is for me: my home to be the best version of myself.”

For a record that tells the story of Adrian Younge’s quest – not necessarily his favorite record, but one that tells his story best – he pointed to his 2011 album Something About April. The impetus was to create a record that resembled his DJ crate, in which you’ll find prog rock masters King Crimson and avant electro-pop darlings Stereolab sandwiched in between hip-hop legends A Tribe Called Quest and the late Ennio Morricone, a true genius of composition with his orchestral film scores and classical works. “I wanted to make a record that exemplified the notion that you don’t have to make a choice as to whether you’re going to be a country artist, or a jazz artist, or a hip-hop artist,” Adrian said. “You choose to express yourself in a way that feels cohesive to you. Something About April is a record that really encapsulates my perspective on composition and sound.”

Music can be understood as three things: melody, rhythm, arrangement. “When you have those three pathways, and when you individually study those three, you understand that you can make songs with just those three,” Adrian said. “If you’re doing a song with one chord that goes to another chord, you know the next time you’re writing a song, you shouldn’t do that again.” Adrian can’t stop opening pathways, can’t stop having ideas, to the degree that he finds himself rarely in need of inspiration – so much so that it’s sometimes hard for him to leave the studio. This is one of the reasons gear is extremely important to Adrian. “I’m not one of those people that say ‘It’s not about the gear, it’s about you.’ It’s about both. You need the gear because the gear is going to give you the sound that’s in your head,” Adrian said. It comes back to his belief that gear is yet another instrument in one’s musical toolkit.

Although Adrian has a professed love of vintage, that doesn’t mean he avoids all modern gear. After all, he recreates the vintage recording styles he loves by playing the instruments himself. “The reason I like vintage equipment is because it’s handmade. It’s better quality,” he said. It’s all about the attention to detail that is only possible when something is hand-crafted. Highland Dynamics operated by Bryce Gonzalez is a favorite new brand of Adrian’s because of the way Bryce creates specific sounds using real equipment, with no plug-ins. “He’ll make something discrete, Class A, and then he’ll add an extra nasty chain for you to make things even messier. People don’t do that kind of stuff; he does it. Some plug-ins try to do it, but plug-ins are emulations. He makes the real thing,” Adrian described, pointing out a vintage RCA broadcast console. Bryce had added a transformer and tube compression unit to the console, turning what was already a behemoth into more of one, Adrian said with a laugh.

That same level of consideration is also why Adrian appreciates Vintage King. “What I love about Vintage King is it employs people that care about music as much as you do. You can talk to them on a level where you’ll actually learn something,” he said. “You could be an expert and go there and they’ll teach you something. They sell dope vintage stuff, they sell dope new stuff, but they understand what the standard is supposed to be when it comes to selling quality gear. You can go in and work with people that care. That’s what I love.”

From composing works for films and television to producing records for new artists, Adrian always has a lot going on at any given moment. His most recent personal project pulls together unexpected elements from his vast repertoire of influences: “A crazy ill symphony, as if RZA, DJ Premier, and Quincy Jones made a nasty symphonic record in ’73 or ’74.” His original idea was to travel the globe performing this symphony live, but for now, if, like the rest of us, Adrian is going to be largely stuck indoors for the foreseeable future, we can hardly think of a better place to weather that storm than Linear Labs.

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Miles PetersonIf you are interested in gear for your studio and need help, we're here for you! Please contact a Vintage King Audio Consultant via email or by phone at 866.644.0160.