RJD2 by Dan McMahonRJD2’s The Colossus

Going by the jawdropping cornucopia of sounds on his new album The Colossus, hip-hop producer/artist/visionary RJD2’s got a lot on his mind –– and it’s beautiful stuff. Created in his home studio in Philadelphia, Colossus is RJD2’s fourth solo release, and unlike his last record, The Third Hand, on which he veered away from sampling and guest vocalists, it features several collaborations with singers and players; similar to his previous recordings, it was achieved at minimal expense.

“The overarching concept this time was that there would be a variety of things on it,” he says. “At one time I was producing primarily instrumental hip-hop on a sampler, and then I moved into doing live recording and working with vocal artists. The intent of this record was to move back and take all of those sort of formats of recording and use ’em all, but obviously coming from a 2009 writing perspective.”

An inveterate gear junkie –– of the cheapo kind, that is –– RJD2 dove into his pile of vintage instruments and mics for inspiration, and combined their olde-world charms with modern recording and processing equipment and software.

“I’m obsessed with buying gear,” he says, “whether that be synthesizers or guitars or mics. This is a holdover from the time when the only source material I could use to make a record was samples off of records. Now I see collecting different drum kits –– or placing different mics on the drum kits –– as the same kind of amassing tools, basically. The best scenario is when you get something new and it leads to a particular kind of writing for a particular instrument.”

There’s no mistaking the thrill in discovering a new use for an old sound, as RJD2 has found out. An example is his fondness for a Yamaha CS 80 synth from 1977, which conjures memories while tilting the listener’s head in novel positions.

“It had been used on a lot of very recognizable recordings, so you sit down and you immediately hear some of those sounds,” he says. “It’s the same instrument that Vangelis used for the score to Blade Runner; Stevie Wonder used it on The Secret Life of Plants, and it was used for the Dr. Who theme. But also it’s really playable. It’s got polyphonic aftertouch, and in the world of the original analog synths that was a rarity. It’s got a ribbon controller and an expression pedal, and it sounds like no other synth.”

Among the antiques and curios at his studio are three separate drum kits, each mic’d in idiosyncratic ways to get the desired dry, medium or wet sound required for whatever song he’s working on. The wettest kit, heard on “Walk With me” and “Gypsy Caravan,” is a Ludwig, with a standard-sized snare and 26-inch kick drum with both heads on it –– “It’s basically the Bonham kit without all the toms,” he says with a laugh. “It’s got the front and beater heads on, with two felt strips on each side of it.”

The dry kit, heard on “Games You Can Win”, “Shining Path” and “The Tinflower” is “a really trashy Gretsch Nighthawk, but it just damps to oblivion. There’re two dampers on the snare –– one is this foam square that I stuck a weight in so it wouldn’t pop off, and the other is one inch of bar coasters that I duct-taped together; it’s about the size of a wallet.”

He likes older, cheaper mics for his vintage drum and vocal parts as well.

“I’m a big fan of the old Realistic dynamic mics, like the model 1070, which I used as an overhead on the drums, as well as a Realistic stereo mic. These mics are not ‘high end,’ but they’re the only mics that’ll achieve this particular sound that I’m shooting for.”

In front of the wet kick drum he might go with the AKG D12, a large-diaphragm dynamic mic from the 1960s. But on the dry kit, “I use this Realistic knock-off of a B12; it’s really cheap, and it sounds terrible, but you set it an inch off the resonant head of a big kick drum that’s damped really hard, and it sounds perfect.” His vocal mic of preference is a Gefell UM75 tube condenser. “It’s across the board, not too sibilant, good frequency response. It just sounds good,” he says.

While he drafted in several horn and guitar players on The Colossus to give things an occasional live organic sound, RJD2’s still rifling through his stacks of old vinyl, using the MPC 2000 sampler and several plugins for keyboard sounds and effects, including the M-tron virtual Mellotron. For various processing procedures, he made extensive use of the Plate 140 on the Universal Audio UAD card, as well as the Pultec and Fairchild plugins for EQ –– and a lotta tremolo.

“A big part of using the UAD Plate 140 is ease of use,” he admits. “I do a stereo auxiliary channel and just buss the instruments to it. If I’m really in the mood to patch cables around and shoot for a sound, I’ve got a Tapco spring reverb and outboard thing. Again, it just sounds great.”

RJD2’s “if it works use it” attitude extends, finally, to his studio monitors, a hodgepodge of late-’70s-early-’80s Technics home studio speakers with a standard power amplifier.

“It’s not, like, fancy,” he says, chuckling, “but at this point I’d rather have a monitor that I know that isn’t perfect than a monitor I don’t know that’s high class. It makes sense to mix on monitors that are close to what people are actually going to listen on in the end.”

Photo: Dan McMahon