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Prime Production Posse: Just Blaze, Mike Chav, Jay Electronica – Powered by Roland
October 2008: In the late '90s, the formidable talents of Just Blaze scored him the dream gig of any hip-hop kid growing up in New Jersey: In-house producer at Roc-A-Fella Records. He'd make tracks for rap's heaviest hitters, including The Game, Busta Rhymes, and Jay-Z. Now heading up his own Fort Knocks Entertainment, he's on the same short list that includes Timbaland, Dr. Dre, and The Neptunes. In other words, he's one of the guys aspiring MCs dream of having hear their rhymes. That's exactly what happened to Jay Electronica, who's lyrical flow over a track made from samples of the soundtrack to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind made him the most buzzworthy rapper of 2008-he and Blaze are now working on his upcoming debut album. Along with renowned engineer/producer/guitarist Mike Chav (Snoop Dogg, Eminem), the three also just collaborated on Erykah Badu's mind-blowing neo-soul masterpiece New Amerykah Part One. Another thing they have in common? They all rely heavily on Roland gear, and Blaze was cool enough to take the time to tell us why.

Just Blaze at Guitar Center Manhattan

"Music production is like photography," he reflects, "A lens that has a really big zoom range, it'll do a decent job at any focal length you set it to. But serious photographers have ten or more lenses-fisheyes, macros, telephotos-because a fixed-length lens will capture a much more hi-res image if you use it for the job it was meant for. Same goes for production. Nine times out of ten, an instrument or box that's designed to do one thing, it'll do that thing better than a workstation or DAW that's designed to do everything."

Long a fan of Roland V-Drums, Blaze sometimes uses them to play Roland's new flagship TD-20 sound module; other times, he triggers samples from programs such as NI Battery. Either way, they're a perfect example of this approach, which he continues to explain:

WHAT BLAZE PLAYZ

What Roland gear is in Just Blaze's studio?

  • Fantom-G7 Workstation with DP-10 Sustain Pedal
  • Juno-Stage Expandable Synthesizer
  • MV-8800 Production Studio
  • V-Synth Elastic Audio Keyboard and V-Synth XT Rack
  • SH-201 Virtual Analog Synthesizer
  • VG-99 V-Guitar System
  • V-Session V-Drums kit with TD-20 Percussion Sound Module and TDW-20 Expansion Card
  • Edirol R-09 HR Handheld High-Resolution Stereo Recorder
  • DR-50 Microphone

"Don't get me wrong. The thing I love about my laptop, and about the Logics and Pro Tools of the world, is that you can pretty much do everything on them-decently. You can program some drums, play your synth parts, and record a vocal. I've done entire records on a laptop and heard them on the radio a week later. That's a great feeling, but I find that if I have several pieces, each of which does one thing well, I actually get my ideas down more quickly. When time is of the essence, or I feel a creative surge, I don't necessarily want to open a session, set up MIDI tracks, set up audio tracks, load plug-in instruments, and put samples into the editor. Sometimes you just want to switch on and go."

So what other gear helps Blaze switch on and go? For starters, the Roland MV-8800. Even though it kind of does do everything, Blaze appreciates the immediate, hands-on aspect of its interface for laying down drum tracks:

"I just barely opened the box, and you should know that even though it looks like a certain other drum machine everyone in hip-hop knows, it works differently. It's like Roland took the important things about recording on a computer-MIDI sequencing, audio recording, triggering samples, whatever-and put it into a tabletop unit that pretty much has one button or knob for every function. The main problem I have with DAWs is interacting with them with a mouse and a computer keyboard."

Another favorite specialist in Blaze's stable of tools is the Edirol R-09 stereo field recorder, recently upgraded to a hi-res R-09HR model. "If production is like photography, then this is like my point-and-shoot camera." Good point-getting inspired by a sound or hearing a great groove or melody in your head when you're not near your kit or recording gear is a lot like seeing something amazing and wishing you had a camera. Blaze continues, "Sometimes you can sing into your cell phone so you don't forget a lick, but you can't walk around with it in record mode all the time. With a dedicated recorder, you can, and the only limit is the size of your storage card. Once I was in Japan just recording the sound of being outside. I wound up using it in the background of the speeches on Jay-Z's track 'Public Service Announcement.' You'd never know it was there, but if I played the mix for you with that track removed, you'd sense something was missing. Using things in novel ways goes back to the origins of hip-hop: People didn't have money for real instruments or music lessons, but they wanted to make music, so they took whatever they could find and adapted it. That's how turntables turned into drum machines."

Speaking of hip-hop's origins, what does Blaze think about cred? Specifically, do you have to sound one way or another in order to have it? In his opinion, it's more about not being a hater.

"In terms of production, I feel there's a time and a place for everything," he says, "The whole issue of cred, at least from the standpoint of what you sound like, happens because of generation gaps. You have guys that are really heavy about the 'boom-bap' purist sound, you have kids into crunk or snap music, you have guys who came up when I did, which is to say fans of Nas and Wu Tang, going 'Oh, that crunk stuff isn't authentic hip-hop,' but it takes talent to do any style well. When Run-DMC first hit, a previous generation went, 'Where's your music? You're just singing over drums!' But to my generation, Run-DMC were heroes. When Miles Davis came out with his first fusion record in the '70s, there was a huge backlash from the bebop jazz fans. Whether it's jazz or hip-hop, things can't stay the same forever, because then there's no artistry."

Just Blaze and Mike Chav

What were you working on at Fort Knocks right before this interview started?

We were just wrapping up some stuff for Marsha Ambrosia, who used to be in the group Floetry. We did about four or five songs for her album. They're coming out really fantastic.

So was any particular piece of gear an MVP on this project?

Well, the Fantom-G7 hasn't been turned off since we put it on the island in the studio a few weeks back, but the first thing that comes to mind is the VG-99, their latest virtual guitar processor.

How'd you use the VG-99 V-Guitar System?

We were going for a specific acoustic guitar sound, but the thing is, I'm not much of a guitar player-I'm a keyboard player. So the actual acoustic at my studio really isn't all that great. Chav and I figured, let's just wire up an electric with the VG-99 and give it a shot. It gave us a very cool acoustic sound. I was just floored by how the VG-99 picked up every nuance, every bend. Before Roland sent it to us to try out, we'd been looking at YouTube videos of the thing and thinking about getting one for the studio. It's the kind of thing that seems too good to be true at first. Some folks are the opposite of me: They play guitar a lot better than they play keyboards. With this, you can play any sound-piano, Rhodes, strings, synths, whatever-from the guitar. Or, you can have a ton of virtual guitars even though you have only one real instrument.

Have you checked out the V-Synth GT?

I actually had one for review through Scratch magazine. I really liked the new string modeling. Depending on how you play and use the controllers, you can change the aspects of the string and how it's played-bowed, plucked, strummed, and so on. Plus, it has two engines where the original had one, so you can double up on the synths and make all new layers and patterns. It's pretty crazy. If I didn't already have an original V-Synth keyboard and a V-Synth XT rack, I'd run out and buy a GT.

You just got a Roland VP-550 vocal keyboard. Are you using it for any vocoder stuff?

Funny you should mention vocoders. Before we got this VP-550, we were breakin' our heads trying to get the perfect vocoder sound for a track, using plug-ins. We tried all the big software ones, and a lot of them do very sophisticated stuff, but we just wanted that traditional, '80s vocoder sound, and none of them were quite 100%. Then I remembered that sound was originally vintage Roland-the old VP-330. Turns out my V-Synth XT had a patch in "Vocal Designer" mode that nailed that right on the head! Now, we use the VP-550 for that, because it has very similar functions. Plus, the way it models choirs, especially gospel choirs, is amazing.

You recently also picked up an Edirol R-09HR recorder...

Think about how many times you wish you'd had a camera on you-the R-09HR is my audio camera. There've been times when I've been inspired by, say, a series of traffic sounds. Just a particular progression of sounds I've had to sing to myself over and over, so I don't forget it. Sure, you think of a melody, you can sing it into your cell phone, but it's not like you can walk around with your phone in record mode all the time. With a dedicated recorder, you can, and the only limit is the size of your storage card. I had the original version, the R-09, and once I was in Japan just recording the sound of being outside. I wound up using it in the background of the speeches on Jay-Z's track "Public Service Announcement." You'd never know it was there, but if I played the mix for you with that track removed, you'd sense something was missing. It's almost subliminal.

Can you sum up why you gravitate towards Roland gear?

When it comes to simulating the natural sound of real instruments, like strings and keys, I don't think any company can beat Roland. Also, they listen. When they found out I'd bought their pad-based production box, the MV-8000, they came out to the studio to hear what I liked and didn't like about it. One of the guys who showed up was, like, a VP in the company! I just got the new one, the MV-8800, and I can't wait to see what they've done.

Mike Chav

MY NAME IS CHAV. CAN I HELP YOU?

Mike Chav's first music industry job? It wasn't untangling cables and making latté runs in a recording studio. It was right here at GC, and here's how he feels about it.

On working at Guitar Center leading to his current success:

"I began working at GC at 20 years old, and I likened the experience to going to college, but while making some money. I quickly began learning the ins and outs of Pro Tools, and of what makes records sound great in general. Through Guitar Center, I was flown to Digidesign for training, and to several events where I met manufacturer reps and other industry pros. The most important aspect of my GC career, though, was who I met as customers. Eventually I was engineering for some of them-people like Pastor Reginald Lane, J Dilla, and Denaun Porter. Through these people and others, I had the opportunity to learn and grow in studios that were the real deal, and work on great music that helped me get to the next level."

On what inspired him to get into music production:

"I grew up with hip-hop. The first artist I was a fan of was LL Cool J. I had to have been eight or nine, troop kicks and all. At age 12, I started playing guitar and that led me in a totally different direction musically. I think the first record that made me go, "Wow, how'd they do that?" was Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon-put on some good headphones, no explanation needed! Recently, my biggest influence has been my partner Jay Electronica. He's truly on the next level and has taught me to stay open because there are no bounds to creativity."

Jay Electronica working on some new lyrics

Advice for aspiring artists and producers:

"Find the thing that separates you from everyone else, all the while learning from your predecessors who achieved greatness. Get your hands on the best equipment you can afford, whether you buy it or work in a studio with it. Practice, experiment, hopefully apprentice under someone with skills. You really have to eat, sleep, and dream this-it has to be a passion, not a job."

Favorite Roland Synth:

"The V-Synth line has been a secret weapon of mine for quite awhile. Being able to take samples and craft them into new instruments, and adding crazy effects. This keyboard does things nothing else can do, so it'll always have a home in my studio."


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