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If you’re the type of artist who struggles with starting songs, finishing songs, or just generally being creative on tap, we suggest you sit down and have a good listen to Jamie Lidell.
Whether you listen to his body of work as a singer/songwriter/producer or choose from the 100-plus episodes of his podcast Hanging Out With Audiophiles, you will come away feeling inspired by the British-born, Nashville-based artist’s love for sonic experimentation and his deep-dive approach to interacting with sound like the living, breathing thing that it is.
Jamie is the perfect candidate for our 20 Questions series and we recently had a lovely conversation with him about his ‘80s effects collection, tips on vocal technique, adventurous sonic experiments, and his one important piece of advice for upcoming artists.
1. What has been your most recent favorite music-making experience and what made it special?
During the pandemic, I got to meet and learn from a gentleman who teaches here at Vanderbilt University called Pascal Le Boeuf. He's a pretty renowned jazz musician and a wonderful guy who trained me in piano. For the first time in my life, I really tried to put some hours in and learn the piano, which was just really, really great, and through that whole process, I started to be more adventurous with my composition.
I did a piece for vocals, kind of an acapella multitrack, and I had him transcribe it so that we could get it played by a cellist. The cellist I used was a student at Blair, Griffin Seuter–such a good sport; I think it took us 5 hours to track it! Pascal had transcribed the music I’d done with my voice and we sat and constructed this thing with the cellist and it was just a magical event to hear all of the parts. It was very much like a kind of Bob Ross moment where you see something and you think, “Is that good?” ; then the layers start building up and you're like, “I still don't know!” And then the reveal is so magical! It was very satisfying to hear this idea that was just in my head, come to life.
It was interesting because the vocals that I made were quite arbitrary in a way, so the actual parts didn't exactly line up. For example, it wasn't like it started in the lowest register and then got higher; melodic lines would jump very randomly around, and only when he started to add the missing notes would it appear as harmony. So yeah, it was quite a mysterious process, but I couldn't have done it without Pascal. Griffin was great as well; Pascal was in the room with her the whole time, keeping time, talking to her, keeping the situation controlled… I'm in awe of musicians who can look at a score and see what's there and what's missing if there are any discrepancies in harmony. It's not my skill, but it was great to be part of it–it will stick with me, it was really beautiful.
2. You have a great Masterclass where you explore, among other things, creative techniques for singers. What do you think is the biggest mistake that beginners make with their voice?
I wouldn't want to generalize, but one thing I've certainly found is that understanding the physiology of the voice is still something I'm struggling with, even now. I wouldn't say I've mastered this at all, and arguably, it is quite advanced. It is the disconnect between what you think makes a good sound and what is happening physiologically. You might think that to make a loud sound, you have to sort of really open your mouth and really squeeze everything. But the more you do that, the more tense you are, the more likely you are to actually restrict airflow and not honor what is going on with the shape of your vocal cords, which are only the size of a thumbnail–you're not really understanding the mechanism.
I think what's really cool and how you can really learn as a singer is by recording yourself. The first time you say, “Oh, this is me going 100%, this is it, this is the loudest, craziest performance!” Then you dial it back internally–let's say to 70%–you’re still going for it, but with less; then you dial back to 50. I think, sometimes, what you'll find when listening back to the takes that you thought were less energetic on the recording side, is that they come across with a much clearer, louder tone. It's very counterintuitive.
So I think it's just about understanding the physiology of your voice. That also applies to being a touring musician and looking after your voice because you try to give it so much, but actually, you're really stressing out your voice. So I think it's like physiological understanding versus mental wish. When you're young, you can kind of power through everything and it's quite amazing. Listen to someone like Kurt Cobain. I mean, there's no vocal technique there, but it's incredible power. So ultimately Kurt Cobain disproves what I've said completely. [Laughs] I love his vocals so much, I just think he's incredible. Also flamenco singers, I truly love them and they are clearly burning their voice for the tone.
3. What is your go-to vocal chain?
It's a Neumann 269 going into a CAPI Heider 312, which often goes into an 1176 AE Blue Stripe and then into a Magic Death Eye compressor going into the Crane Song HEDD Quantum. If I were just to pull up a chain, I'd probably do that. This is what I used to record Multiply–the same microphone; it’s got sentimental value, I think. I used to be reluctant to talk about that, but now I think I understand the importance of nostalgia. I mean, I'm lucky enough to have these things; I bought this mic when it was really cheap and some of these things can be massively expensive, but this one truly does have some sentimental value and that's good.
I've always been fascinated working with singers and I feel like most people sound good on this chain, but I've also been shocked at how many people sound better on an SM58 than they do on a fancy mic. Sometimes people think, “Yeah that mic's only $100, let's use the $10,000 ones”. You’ve really got to listen and also, it’s about way more factors than how good the mic is. Sometimes it intimidates people to stand and sing when they’re used to just using a hand-held mic. So if you can't get the performance, then the mic is wrong, you know.
4. There’s a real willingness to experiment and a sense of playfulness with effects that can be heard in your work–is that an accurate assessment of your creative process?
Yeah, I think you're absolutely right. I'm not very adept at playing instruments; I talked a bit about learning the piano and not being particularly proficient at it–that's an understatement. [Laughs] I have learned some rudiments now, but I still can't really get around on many traditional instruments. The vocal has always been my way to express myself and through doing a lot of live looping for many years I kind of learned that I can really express myself with effects, if they're the right ones. So I tend to gravitate towards effects that have a really good hands-on experience, where you can really anticipate what's going to happen.
There are two ways to use effects, I suppose–you can record the part and apply the effects later or you can try to use the effect in real-time, as an actual augmentation of what you're doing. I think they're both great, but not everyone does the latter–really try to perform with the effect. I think that's definitely something that I've done a lot and really like to do; to see effects not just as icing on the cake, as it were, but like a real integral part of the cake itself. I see it not as a trick or a gloss that you apply; it's really fundamental—or can be if you bake it in.
I mean, the guitar players know that, of course, because distortion is an effect and you put it on when you play because then you play differently! And that's pretty easy to understand from the guitarist’s perspective. I suppose that's the thing, maybe if you’re not playing the guitar, you don't think about effects in the same way, but I think it can be fun.
5. What are some of your favorite effects?
The classic hands-on studio pieces would be the Space Echo and the Lexicon Prime Time, which is amazing because it has a multiplication knob. Basically what that does is it changes the resolution of the way that the chips are sampling the information and it can really diminish it on its lowest setting and it also multiplies the actual time delay by factors. That is a classic example of a unit, where changing that knob–and it's quite an awkward knob that doesn't exactly behave–so when you change it, it might be late and all of those things play into this kind of messiness that I really love. In a lot of early records, when people are doing mutes of live dub on the desk they're a bit late, so you hear a little bit of the drums still hanging over. Things aren't perfect and it's that roughness that you get from things like the Prime Time–I love it for that. I love the Marshall Time Modulator, another very expensive box at this point, but it's an incredible playable thing.
And of course, pretty much my all-time favorite is the AMS 15-80S which is the delay and pitch shifter. I pretty much use that on every podcast; I mean, I use it on pretty much everything I do. That is my number one effect. I would pay the God-awful amount of money that it would take to repair it because it would be so sad to lose it; I find it's the most magical effect I've ever used. I also have the Publison Infernal Machine, which is great, but it's much less hands-on; it's annoying to get in, it's one of the reasons I don't love it as much even though sonically it's incredible. I have a massive amount of modular equipment and effects are just another module, you know. So I have lots of those and they are just wonderful.
6. Let’s go back to the beginning – how did you get started making records?
The thing that's kind of hard to clarify in this story is why I got electronic equipment in the first place. I think I was just very obsessed with going to music shops as a kid. I would go to Cambridge, which is the nearest town to where I lived in England; there was a great music shop and it was around the time when all of these relatively affordable things would come in, in the late ‘80s. Suddenly, samplers that I'd seen in magazines were becoming more affordable thanks to Akai and everything. There was the Roland D-50 and the Korg M1 and that was the time when I was going to music shops. I used to sit there and dream of these machines because they just sounded so incredible; I would just put the headphones on and be lost!
I think that just set me down this road of dreaming and then I got some money from my grandma–it was two thousand English Pounds. It wasn't a huge amount of money, but at the time it was a really liberating prospect for me because I didn't have that kind of money and no one in my family was going to support my hope. So my grandma really set me down an amazing path and I spent the money in America, I bought all the equipment in America because it was a two-to-one exchange rate so I got lots of gear: I had a Korg M1, an Akai S950, an Alesis MidiVerb III, a Shure SM58, and a TASCAM 4-track. That was a powerful moment for me!
So all of a sudden I had this stuff but I didn't know how to use it so I sat in my room with an Atari ST running Cubase and just sort of worked it out basically; slowly, pre-YouTube of course, just kind of like plodding along, making stuff and doing stuff for school productions. I was like, “I can do some sounds for this. I can do some eerie sound effects and maybe do some music”, just trying to get some little gigs.
I did that at school and then I just continued through university, going clubbing a lot and just trying to make tracks that kind of reminded me of the feeling, just trying to learn all the time; listening to loads of records and having it as a passion, but obviously still trying to do my studies and everything. Then I sent a tape to a friend of mine who went to a big studio in London called Strongroom. He passed on my tape to someone that worked there and they were into one of these tracks and said, “Well, come down and record it, put it out”. And I was like, “What?!” It blew my mind.
All of a sudden I had my chance to make my first recording which was fine, but what happened is I met two other guys named Jason Leach and Phil Wells, and we became the group Subhead quite quickly. We started to release techno music in about 1995 as Subhead and that was what got me started–I was just really into it. The thing about meeting Jason and Phil that was so great for me was that I realized that I had knowledge. I had spent all this time in my bedroom gaining all this knowledge, but I didn't really know what to do with it in a way if I'm honest. I didn't really have great personal taste or personal knowledge of electronic music; it was quite broad. They had a lot of opinions and a lot of great taste, and they were like, “Hey, you’ve got to listen to this, you got to listen to that! Should we try and do something in that vein?” I was like, “Wow, that’s pretty good! Yeah, sure, I know how to do that.” So I became a really important person in the crew because I was a facilitator, you know–I could produce them, basically. Not only was I a writer, but that was my first taste of production where they had ideas and I would translate it through the machines and I could just drive it. It was hugely important for me.
7. What has changed most about your production style or technique over the years?
Sometimes it's hard to put myself in the headspace of my younger self, you know. I can claim that I knew exactly what it felt like, but I do feel like I have more concrete knowledge now and that's both a good thing and a bad thing. I think the bad part of it is like when you asked about a vocal chain and I gave you a list–that gets you to a place but it also means that you maybe don't try other things, you know what I mean?
Also, I don't have naiveté now. I hate to say it, but I have more of a jaded aspect of myself and I need to work with certain kinds of people now, otherwise, I'll get frustrated and maybe I won't enjoy the process. So I'm very selective about who I work with now, not because I'm a snob, but just because I feel like I will lose interest and maybe not do a good job if I don't think the person is a good fit for me. So I'm actually not really great as a producer because I can only work with certain people, that's what I've come to learn. [Laughs] I try though, I really try.
I think I flourish well and I'm a good team player when I'm working with a vocalist–that's my greatest strength, I will say, coming up with melodies. I wrote a song with a very big A-list team, we wrote a song called Let Me Go for Kelly Clarkson, which ended up being cut by Hailee Steinfeld and it has about a billion streams now on Spotify. I wrote the chorus to that song on the first day, I came up with the melody and it remained in the song. I feel like I could do that with anyone from any level; I know I have that one skill now. Like I talked about earlier with writing for the cello–I did it with my voice and I can think of melodies and countermelodies with my voice. If I don't get a chance to exercise that part of me, I don't feel like I'm particularly special. I'm not really great at making beats, there are a lot better people than me on that front, but with the melody, I think that's my true strength really.
8. What surprised you the most about the music industry when you’d been a part of it for a few years?
My experience with the industry is a little bit strange, mostly because I was always on an independent label–Warp Records. They're very small and I've not really had a great amount of experience working with major labels, so I can't really speak to the industry at large. One thing I would say that always shocks me–and I don't want to sound like a really disgruntled guy–but it is a little shocking just how little… I'm a little bit reluctant to talk about this, but I feel like it's relevant to the question. Like in the case of the Hailee Steinfeld song–it was a song that made the record label, unquestionably, millions of dollars and I was an integral part of that. I wrote the chorus, and there was nothing. No one from the Hailee Steinfeld team contacted me, and no one from the record label contacted me. It's a thankless industry. In what other industry would you imagine that you could make them millions of dollars and they wouldn't even send you a Christmas card or anything; I just find that bizarre. I would feel so strange on a moral level to have had someone help me make so much money and just treat them like, “Well, that's what you get, you know; that's the industry, kid. Get on with it. Have you got anything else?” I think that's just really wrong.
Now, without wanting to go down the road of gripes, that upsets me to the point where I sometimes have to be careful and I often just don't want to interact with anyone. It’s one of the reasons I did the podcast so that I could try to be independent and actually dodge the music business if I'm quite honest–do things on my own and be smaller but be happier because I've never felt good interacting with a lot of the people that were involved in the industry; it always makes me feel bad about myself and I'm tired of that, you know? If you don't need them anymore it’s such a relief, but I probably will need them at some point, so I should be careful what I say. [Laughs] But I think you know what I mean.
I don't mind this going out because what I also don't like is having to be silent about it because there's some kind of fear–like it might be a bad thing to say; I also don't like that because then people just have a false impression. I don't mind being the one who calls that kind of thing out; no one's going to be surprised, to be honest. [Laughs]
9. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever done to get a specific sound in a recording session?
I had a very ambitious idea that took me months to conceive. To summarize, I had a series of speakers in the recording room alongside a marimba player, a second percussionist, a pianist, and another keyboard player, all making acoustic sounds in the live space. Then I had a Neumann Binaural Head placed in the middle of the room, surrounded by speakers and the musicians themselves. I took microphone sends from all of the instruments that were playing in real-time and sent them through kind of a custom-made panning and Eurorack system that I could then send back into the speakers, so I could augment what they were doing in the room with new versions of themselves that the Binaural Head would pick up–it would pick up not only the impulse from the acoustic instrument but a variant of it, so it would be adding something in actual space rather than adding it later.
It was incredibly complicated to set up for so many reasons and unfortunately, I didn't have enough time to master it since it’s so complicated, so I kind of blew it. I pulled off a couple of moments where it showed promise, and I would like to revisit it because I think it's a truly exciting idea. I did all of that, spent so much time, so much money to try to do this thing and ultimately it kind of fell on its face, which actually really demoralized me for several months. But there you go–I think I almost got something good out of it. [Laughs] It was adventurous, I give myself points for trying.
10. When you're feeling inspired, what is the first piece of gear that you reach for?
A looper, I would say, because I spent so many years working with loopers–it’s a great tool for me. I feel like if I open up a looper, something will happen that I will use. Also, tape machines–every time I use a tape machine as a looper specifically, I feel like there will be material on there that I'll always want to keep. If I generate stuff in the computer domain alone, I'm liable to just throw it away but if I make something on tape or make something that has more of a process and I'm more involved… It's a bit like the difference between making a packet meal, a meal out of a box, or a microwave meal versus building it all from scratch–you don't feel invested if you just use a microwave; I feel like I have to get involved.
11. Can you tell us a little bit about your studio?
Actually, you've called me at an interesting time because this studio will be no more by the end of this month, even though it's been here for ten years. This is a home studio, it's a pretty lavish one, I would say. It's got a very large Eurorack system–embarrassingly large–and a lot of outboard equipment. I've got a real piano, an upright Steinway, a bunch of polysynths, a selection of U47s, a 269, and a bunch of other crazy mics–this is my life's collection; it's my life’s collection of instruments for the last 25 years, I suppose, all just crammed into a room.
12. What are some of your favorite pieces of outboard gear?
As I mentioned, the effects from the ‘80s are my favorites so there’s the AMS 15-80S, the Marshall Time Modulator, the Publison Infernal Machine, the Prime Time from Lexicon, the Eventide H3000, and the Space Echo. Then I have a Nagra 4.2 and a Nagra IV-S and I have an Otari 4-track MX-5050, which I have had modified to have external CV control and erase head modifications. I also have a Revox tape machine, a modified Marantz tape machine, the Overstayer Modular Channel, ATC 45 monitors, and a bunch of guitar pedals.
I also have a Zähl AM1 mixing desk, which I have not installed, but it's going into my studio at the end of the year. It's handmade by Michael Zähl, who made the desk for Conny Plank and worked with Can and a bunch of the Krautrock guys back in the day. So that's the biggest audio purchase I've made in my life–it’s one of the biggest purchases in general that I've ever made.
13. What made you choose the Zähl console?
It's a very unique thing; it's because I'm so into modular synths, you know. Because I've invested so much time and money into the synthesizers, into Eurorack, I was very taken by the Zähl AM1 console because it has control voltage; you can control the entire mixing desk from external voltages–all the aux sends, the EQ, all of the stereo imaging, the volume, the panning. There are 66 parameters per channel; I have six of those channels with all of their points of control and then another bunch of analog chains that have no VCAs, and it's an extremely state-of-the-art console. I would say it's probably the most exciting mixing desk that I've ever seen and I've had quite a few and experienced a lot. Needless to say, I'm very excited to use it. It’s still in the corridor and it's been here since June last year, unopened in its bubble wrap, just because I have nowhere to put it and I don't want it to get, like, covered in cooking oil from the kitchen, since it’s right next door to the kitchen. [Laughs]
I’m a big nerd so it’s really nice for me to have a desk like that, I can just see the wonderful potential for example, you could feed in just raw oscillators, just tones... On a traditional mixing desk, you'd have to play the faders, or you could use automation possibly to modulate those but that modulation would usually involve VCA control of a kind of limited capacity. This console allows you to feed in another oscillator into the volume control, so you could do AM modulation, you could do vastly complicated things; you could use the desk as a synthesizer, essentially–it's a bizarre and exciting world. I just feel like it's the end game for me. I feel like this will probably be the last studio configuration I need. I mean, famous last words, but I would like it to be that way.
14. What EQs do you reach for most often?
Interestingly, I really like using the Tube-Tech SMC 2B multiband compressor as an EQ. It has two crossover points and volumes for the three bands–the low, mid, and high bands–but it has a beautifully sweet top end that I really love. You can very quickly think, “Oh, I need more midrange”, but it's a different kind of boost to thinking of a parametric EQ. Especially when you're working in a situation where really complicated signals are coming to you, it’s a very nice end of the chain to perform with, which I often do; I try to make these ultra analog channels. I think in an age where the DAW can simulate analog equipment quite well, what I find still really excels is having massive amounts of analog in a chain–I feel like it still doesn't quite sound right in a DAW. So I'll put a bunch of preamps into a bunch of compressors into a bunch of things and then have that at the end.
I've also got a couple of Calrec EQs, which are nice. I've got a Culture Vulture Red Edition from the early days; I’ve got two EMI TG channel preamps, CAPI preamps, and an Altec 9067-B High and Low Pass filter that was used by King Tubby, which I love; and there’s a couple of Quad Eights which are preamps and EQs, and also two HLF-3Cs from Pultec which are fixed high/low pass filters as well, which I like a lot because they're really simple.
15. What about compressors?
As I mentioned, the Magic Death Eye–that's a lovely Fairchild-style compressor that I use. Then there’s the Modular Channel from Overstayer; I also have a couple of their Imperial Channels, which are compressors, EQs, and preamps and they’re just amazing.
I've got a Universal Audio AE Blue Stripe compressor–there's only 500 of those and I've got one of them. I've got Hairball Audio Blue Stripe and the Sta-Level from Retro; I've got the Obsidian 2-bus compressor, which is cool.
I just recently got the DBX 160 VU which is great, I absolutely love it; I can't believe I've lived so long without it. It's my favorite-sounding VCA compressor. Obviously, they're a classic for a reason and they suit me so well, I love them!
16. What's your philosophy on producing?
My friend Dave Sitek has cards printed up that say ‘Produce Yourself’ and I like that a lot. I feel like I don't want to be a dictator, you know what I mean? I don't want to be that kind of producer. Sometimes I think it's kind of necessary–not to be a dictator, but to be kind of clear. If you look at the movie business, I think that is the best analogy there is. You are the director, and it doesn't really mean that you're better than anyone else, it's just that your task is to bring the project home, to produce it, to make the production, to make a thing happen.
It is a vast question, it also depends on the kind of artist you are working with. If you’ve got an artist who has a very strict vision, you don't get in their way; you just try to facilitate the vision. If you've got an artist who's unsure, who's very open to suggestions, then maybe you kind of collaborate with them in a more holding-hands capacity where you can bring them out of their shell and maybe suggest new things they haven't seen before, maybe introduce them to new equipment and let them play around. It depends on the project, the budget, the time scale... I haven't done much producing of other people’s work as a full album thing, because I find that I get way too involved, to be honest. I have to work with the right people, I suppose, in terms of really going out on a limb and chasing the wildest thoughts.
I think that might be one of the answers to why my latest record has taken so long. I think I go down many, many rabbit holes if I'm honest and just keep asking questions like “What if you did this and What if you did that?” You know, I think the more I'm aware of the sonic putty and how you can create variations all over the place, I can just go on indefinitely. What I really need is a deadline. [Laughs] I'm that kind of producer, so to speak. Give me a deadline and I’m actually quite good.
17. What has hosting over 100 episodes of a podcast taught you?
It's taught me that there are a bunch of very fascinating and very generous people out there; they constantly surprise me. Everyone’s done such hard work to get where they are and the way they get there is wildly different but there are also some similarities. It's just taught me a lot–I think mostly for myself, it's taught me to try not to assume anything about anyone.
Hopefully, it's also taught me a bit about myself in terms of the way that I listen, which I think it really has; and it's also shown me that so many people have got started with tape, funnily enough. So many people that I interviewed have had this great experience working with tape machines when they were younger. I think what's so fundamental–it's not necessarily about the tape–but it's just that it allowed you to sort of get involved with sound in a way that really made sense, you know?
On the one hand, you've got guests like Mark Ronson and Nigel Godrich and these famous people but I get just as much of a thrill speaking to more underground artists because I just love to hear about their process, they gave me so many ideas. Just speaking to people fills me with energy. I think that's the thing–I love talking to people, that's just my favorite thing, the conversation itself.
18. What’s the album you reach for when you need some comfort listening?
I probably would reach for Sly and the Family Stone’s There's A Riot Goin’ On. That one always makes me feel something when I'm not feeling much anymore. This is my rule–if I listen to There's A Riot Goin’ On and it doesn't make me feel anything, I need a real break from all things music; because it's not okay if that record doesn't make me feel–something is really wrong.
19. So is that a dream artist that you'd like to work with and would you do something differently than their previous records?
Unfortunately, life has been hard on Sly. I think it's a bit out of the question at this point to ever bring Sly to a place where he would have that energy. But yeah, let's imagine I could go back in time–would I want to work with Sly Stone? You know, I’d just get out of the way; I just want to watch him do his thing. I see it with some people like him or Prince, there’s nothing you can do. You know that they have it all and you get out of the way and just enjoy the experience.
George Clinton would be the same, also Sun Ra–these are my heroes. I just want to be in a room with them, you know, that would be incredible!
20. What’s one piece of advice you have for aspiring producers or engineers?
Maximize your weirdness because AI is coming for everything generic; it’s really coming for it. My wife was like, “I was working out this morning and I heard some dance music and it sounded so simple”, and I was like, “Yeah, you know what, there’ll be nothing left of large parts of that genre. If it feels like you can understand the formula and form, then it's gone .” There's no point pursuing it any further, that’s what I feel and I feel like it's coming quicker than we want to admit.
I've been keeping an eye on that stuff and I think you have to find out what makes you you and really lean into it. Don’t try to be like anyone else because there's just no time anymore. It’s more urgent than it used to be; I don't think there's any room for copycats because AI will copy everything, so don't copy because that's the machine's job. Don’t be a photocopier–you make original artwork. I have thought about what will be valuable over time, and I think it’s the one-off things that are going to be worth something. The one-off painting, where there is nothing but the original, that's really worth something; a one-off performance where you really have to be there, that you can’t digitize.
I think also being aware of the environment that’s coming and seeing where you can make a life... It's just a bit of a different time now and it's going to change quicker than we imagine, I really believe that. Or use the tools now and just get really good at them and we could be on the cutting edge of making music with them. It could be really exciting, I'm not closed to the idea, but I think you've got to be mindful of it.
Want to learn more about Jamie Lidell? Check out our Five Sounds With interview!