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a wonderfully detailed interview by Remix Magazine
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Sage Francis
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Joined: 30 Jun 2002
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a wonderfully detailed interview by Remix Magazine  Reply with quote

Jun 1, 2007 12:00 PM, By Bill Murphy

Although he usually records Sage bone dry, Warren will sometimes turn to a small spread of effects to add some vocal character. One of these is a plug-in he wrote himself — designed using Cycling 74's Max/MSP programming software and based on the Roland Space Echo — which he likes to call the “Disarray Delay.” It pops up throughout the album, but in particular on the psychedelic-sounding “Black Out on White Night,” where the effect acts in tandem with a Waves TrueVerb plug-in to set the music awash in liquid undertows.

“People love the old Roland Space Echo because it's so dirty and nasty,” Warren says, “and the regeneration is terrible. All these digital delays have perfect regeneration, which is nice if you're doing something ambient or pristine, but I like the dirt. So basically in the feedback loop — in addition to a little bit of an overdrive circuit — there's a bit-crusher, some pretty radical EQs and a resampler, along with a slight pitch-change control so you can make things get gradually a little sharper or flatter.”

In addition to stretching out lyrically and vocally, Sage set out to push the sound and the music on Human the Death Dance in radical new directions. His unlikely pairing with trumpeter and composer Mark Isham — sparked by film director Gavin O'Connor, whose upcoming Pride and Glory (starring Edward Norton) will feature a Sage/Isham-produced score — yields some quirky orchestral concoctions that would feel out of place on any other hip-hop record. Whether it's over the creepy strings that back “Good Fashion” or the softly keyed piano chords of “Waterline,” Sage folds himself easily into the cinematic mold.

“It started at Mark's studio in California,” Sage says. “It's almost like a ranch out of The Stepford Wives, which is very fuckin' strange to me [laughs], but the studio is in a renovated barn that's filled from top to bottom with instruments and keyboards — it's crazy. He would just play me scraps of music that he had hanging around, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I could write to that.’ I went home with the music, and the next time I was out there, I stopped by again to record. Eventually, he came up with some new instrumentation and e-mailed the tracks to me; once I heard that, I just rerecorded my vocals so they would fit a little better.”

Sage taps another fresh seam with Alias — a longtime associate whose Collected Remixes (Anticon., 2007) serves equally heavy notice as to the breadth of his beatmaking chops. “Keep Moving,” one of three of his signature tracks on the album, finds him reworking a beat that he gave to Sage back in 2001.

“I actually had to dig through my floppies to find it,” jokes Alias, a veteran of the Akai MPC3000 — and now a 2000XL — but also a gifted pilot on Pro Tools, which he uses for recording and signal processing. “I tracked it out the way I had sequenced it before, but it really sounded like some of my older productions. I messed with the samples by speeding them up, and then I added some synth parts and some drums from a Korg Electribe MX [EMX-1] to update it a little more. It was interesting because it was this beat that I'd made six years ago, literally brought back from the dead.”

The result is an ethereal study in ambient funk, with synthesized and sampled elements that float in a warm stereo spread as the beat builds gradually from a spare kick-clap-hi-hat rhythm to a big-bottomed drum kit at full throttle. Sage calls it his “story song” and laughingly threatens to perform it on the road in a Slick Rick accent. “I've been practicing that, and it sounds real funny,” he says. “And it's probably the most beautiful-sounding song I've ever done. It soothes me, and most of my music doesn't do that when I listen to it.”

Warren points to another key plug-in that, in the mixing phase, helped propel “Keep Moving” and other tracks like Reanimator's “Hoofprints in the Sand” even further into a dreamlike sonic dimension of the headphone experience.

“It's pretty archaic,” he says, “but I have to give a shout out to the Hyperprism-DX More Stereo plug-in. If you take an aux send and put a reverb on it and then drop in a center-channel remover like More Stereo — maybe with a little bit of a high cut at the end — what you get is all the stereo-ness of the reverb without muddying up the middle because it's basically subtracting whatever it finds in common between the left and right signals. You have to be careful because it doesn't sound natural at all, but it's a great way to give some space to small elements of the beat, like a violin part or a guitar part.”

For an artist as open as Sage is to the possibilities of creative exchange, it only makes sense that he would recruit some accomplished musicians to join the fray. (Old-school fans will remember the live hip-hop band Art Official Intelligence, which he helped found and front beginning in 1998.) “Got Up This Morning” swings on a weirdly countrified stomp arranged by Buck 65 — with a raw, raspy harmonica laid down by Nathan Harrop — but the magnum opus is probably the album's closing track “Going Back to Rehab,” which went through a number of different versions before Sage could let it go.

“It's 36 tracks, and it's all live instruments,” he says. “It's definitely one of my proudest moments in music-making. Tom Inhaler had released an instrumental album a while back, and again, I'm going through all my CDs, and that guitar track comes on. I hit Tom up right away — ‘I wanna try this over your instrumental here’ — and he was into it. We had never really done a song together like that, and pretty soon we had violin, live drums, scratches, a vocal intro and outro and all these different elements. I think it might have been a headache for Chris, but by the end, we were able to make everything fit into the puzzle.”

Meanwhile, as Sage girds himself for a two-month American tour that will take him through more than 30 cities (with a live band featuring Alias on synths and MPC, Tom Inhaler on guitar and Cerberus Shoal's Dilly Dilly — aka Erin Olivia Davidson — on saw, banjo and other offbeat instruments), he waxes philosophical about the real motivating force behind Human the Death Dance.

“It's strange,” he muses, “but as a human — as a thinking being — and by being consumed by death at all times and being completely aware that our time is limited here, and with the way we choose to live our lives, that's the dance we do. Our lives are the dance — that's how I think of it. It's pretty basic, but it's also pretty sick.” And with that, Sage cracks up laughing.

Go to and download Chris Warren's Disarray Delay plug-in for free.

Ensconced in a “cavernous old hulk of a mansion” in Newport, R.I., Chris Warren's Alloy Electric Studio takes rewiring and custom modification to an extreme. Warren runs Sony Vegas 7.0 on a PC made of salvaged parts (including a 2 GHz AMD Athlon processor) and identifies himself as a “compulsive modder.” In fact, his reliance on Cycling 74's Max/MSP for writing his own plug-ins is just the tip of the soldering gun, so to speak.

“Now bear in mind,” Warren warns, “with Sage's records, I normally get the beats either fully mixed or individually tracked out — one way or another, I'm just mixing them or taking them as a two-track master and laying the vocals on top. But that said, there are two pieces of gear that define the sound the most. One is a dbx 376 tube channel strip that I put some lower output tubes in to make it a little smoother; that's the main preamp that I run for probably 90 percent of the vocals. And then I have a good-old Pro Co Turbo Rat — the little distortion box. That's where we get all of the distortion that we actually track with.”

Warren mixes entirely in the computer and listens back through a 12-channel Behringer board that drives a pair of Yamaha HS80M monitors. “Even though there's a lo-fi angle to the sound,” he says, “it's not really lo-fi. We try to make it sound rough, but we still put a certain degree of care into making it sound like it has the right level of distortion and the right lo-fi-ness.”

Bay Area-based hip-hop producer Alias got his start back in 1995 on an Akai MPC3000, and since then, he's followed a steady creative arc that has made him a mainstay on the Anticon label. His studio space in Oakland still pivots on an MPC2000XL, but he also calls on Digidesign Pro Tools for recording and effects processing.

Computer, DAW, recording hardware
“I'm into getting a certain amount of grit,” Alias says, “so I do most of my work on the MPC, but it's not because I'm trying to keep a certain level of ‘realness’. I used to believe in this unspoken hip-hop rule that you could only make beats with record samples [laughs] — now I'm definitely more into drum machines and synthesizers. The only thing I really use Pro Tools for is compression or EQ or reverb or delay; I haven't gotten into the fine-editing stuff that you can do with it yet. I've always made beats on an MPC, and it's pretty much stayed that way.”

Alias usually enhances the signal path of a sample — which runs from a Numark turntable and mixer to the MPC — with a Boss Dr. Sample SP-303 in the middle. “That definitely figured in ‘Clickety Clack’ on Sage's album,” he explains. “I added some guitar parts to the original beat, and then I ran those through the tape echo effect on the Dr. Sample to dub them out and get them a little more sinister-sounding.”

Apple Dual-Core 2 GHz Power Mac G5

Digidesign Digi 002, Pro Tools|HD

Korg MS2000, Prophecy

Novation K-Station

Turntable, DJ mixer, drum machines
Roland JP-8000, JX-305

Yamaha CS60

Akai MPC2000XL sampling workstation

Boss Dr. Sample SP-303 sampler

Korg Electribe MX EMX-1 drum machine

Numark DM1002 MKII DJ mixer, TT200 turntable

Event TR8s
Post Sat Jun 30, 2007 7:44 pm
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Joined: 05 Mar 2004
Posts: 3182
Location: Louisiana
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Man...I never expected to get this kind of insight into Sage's studio work. I definitely think the sound of this album is just as interesting as the content. Thanks for sharing, man.

On another note...I'm kind of bummed I sold off my Dr. Sample.
Post Sun Jul 01, 2007 6:10 pm
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My Friend Shalem

Joined: 11 Oct 2006
Posts: 427
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this was the best review/interview i've seen for the project yet. but that's also coming from a studio rat. awesome
Post Sun Jul 01, 2007 6:49 pm
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DiViNCi gnosis

Joined: 25 May 2005
Posts: 1071
Location: Orlando, FL
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I bought this.. and agree one of the best yet. Great to see alias pop up later endorsing REMIX too..
Post Sun Jul 01, 2007 11:35 pm
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Joined: 05 Jul 2002
Posts: 6370
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Good piece. Very insightful stuff. Congrats!
Post Mon Jul 02, 2007 12:14 am
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Joined: 15 Apr 2005
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Location: OntariYO
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I love reading about stuff like this.
Post Mon Jul 02, 2007 12:30 pm
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