Restoring vintage tubes with RJD2

Phillip Mlynar

Rjd2

Photo by Ben Mistak

“Technically speaking if you stick out your tongue and put it on the circuit board, yes, it will kill you,” says the producer RJD2. He's referring to the live-wire dangers of restoring a vintage LA2A compressor that he posted a picture of on his Twitter account. It transpires that RJD2, who came to prominence during a spell on EL-P's Definitive Jux label in the early-2000s and who, for mainstream purposes, is also the guy behind the Man Men theme song, is something of a connoisseur of collecting and maintaining the sort of studio gear that you'd likely find in an early-1970s recording set-up. It's also the technical back-bone of his music making process, as he moved out of a sample-only realm to embrace live instrumentation due to the shifting demands of the industry.

The latest addition to RJD2's discography is More Is Than Isn't, a new long-playing project that takes his signature crackling drums and embellishes them with a sprinkling of guest vocalists including Phonte trilling on the ruggedly soulful “Temperamental” and long-term spar Blueprint pepping up “It All Came To Me In A Dream.” (He also confirms that a new Soul Position project in tandem with Blueprint is “happening for sure.”) Speaking about the album, RJD2 insists that it's a project he doesn't want people to get “too cerebral” about. He wants listeners to enjoy the music on its own charm without too much analysis. That being so, here's RJ getting a reprieve from being asked about the intellectual make-up of his new album in favor of going nerdy on the equipment that crafted the project.

What's the LA2A you posted about on your Twitter account?

It's a compressor. It's a piece of equipment that will give you a certain way to process sound.

How long did it take you to remake it?

I worked on it for like an hour here and there and I'd say over like 12 sessions. That one I got lucky with though, it wasn't hard to complete. I've been building modular synths and restoring synths for a number of years now, since about 2005, and some of that work is completely maddening when you get into trouble-shooting. You can really drive yourself insane. But the LA2A was one that pretty much worked right off the bat so I kinda got lucky as I followed the build guide correctly and it pretty much worked the first time.

Is this a piece of equipment you use when making music? Or do you just restore it as a hobby?

No, all of this stuff goes into the studio. I started out doing temporary restoration work. Trying to keep this brief, at one time I was relying on samples to make records and I realized it was not sustainable. If I let my career revolve around which samples I can find and use as source material, I'm kinda fucked for the long term. So I realized I needed to incorporate live instrumentation into what I do and my very first line of thought was that if I can't sample a record why not just build a studio that makes the same sort of sounds that would be on the records that I would sample?

So I went down the path of buying equipment to replicate a typical studio set-up from the late-'60s or early-'70s. That's what got me into restoration work — maintaining equipment that I had — and that restoration work got me into building modular synths in like 2009. From there, I started to explore the whole world of DIY studio recording gear. At that point I'd done some modifications on some microphones too. It's a whole other world.

So like the LA2A, for example, it's a tube compressor and it runs on a voltage that could technically kill you. It's highly unlikely, but it could kill you. I'll put it this way one: I got bit once when I was working on a piece and my vision went black, for like a second; I involuntarily jumped away from it. That's the likely outcome if you get bit, but technically speaking if you stick out your tongue and put it on the circuit board, yes, it will kill you. So I shied away from it for a while because of the danger of it. But for some reason I felt like I'd got to a comfort level and was being uber careful and went back in.

Where do you go to find out how to restore this sort of equipment?

You know, it's a combination of you start reading schematics and you start pulling down the service manuals and you go online. The cool part of it is, the people who are into this have a whole egalitarian and uber helpful mindstate about it. They really want to help you and they'll help you for free online — they just want to see this equipment live on. It's not entirely impossible to find help for this sort of restoration work online.

You mentioned attempting to replicate a 1970s recording studio. How close have you got to that goal?

Yeah, it's pretty close. Save for the fact that I don't record onto tape because I don't want to, everything else as far as the source material is close. Put it this way: Nearly all of the microphones I own were made before 1980, and in terms of the instruments most of the amps are pre-1975 and most of the instruments are old — I have a Rhodes and I have a Wurlitzer. I think I own maybe once synthesizer that was made after 1984, that's it. So if you remove the tape part of the equation, I have it pretty good.

Can you get obsessed with this?

I try and work really hard not to. At the end of the day, I've heard records come out of places that are two-inch tape — I don't want to name names and suggest that it's bad, but one of the things I've learned by going down that rabbit hole is that there isn't one particular magic bullet that's going to make a source sound quote-unquote vintage. There's real proper revivalist studios, they use two-inch tape and everything they use was made before like 1973 or whatever. If you took a band and put them in there though, you'll be surprised at just how much they'll sound like that band — they're not miraculously going to sound like the Rolling Stones overnight. It's not going to happen. Like I said, it's a learning process and there's no magic bullet that will fix it all. I don't have a desire to recreate something that previously existed; I don't want to recreate the past with my music. It's just not my thing, I'll just say that.

When you first started producing, were there any hip-hop producers you'd try and emulate?

There would be people that I would study and do case studies on, like DJ Premier and I'd do my own little case studies on Prince Paul and the RZA just to try and explore how they get that very distinct sound and work out if it came from a very distinct approach. I'd try and work out how they did it and see how close I could get as a way to try and learn about producing. Those are guys that — I don't like to use the term emulate 'cause from the jump I never wanted to be a knock-off RZA and follow that as a career move — but those are guys that I did sit down and like try to play like RZA to learn from the process and then I could go back to being me. If I could incorporate a new technique into my sound, then great.

Were there any producers whose techniques you could never really fathom out?

Honestly, there's one that does it now that I can say I'm pretty sure I get it but there are still things… Right now, for me, I'd say my favorite two hip-hop producers are Just Blaze and Jake One. A lot of it has to do with those being guys that to some degree I feel an alliance with, even spiritually. What they do is very similar to what I do — I don't mean to put myself on their level 'cause I'm not on their level — and those are guys that are highly functioning in a post-sample era of hip-hop production. They've gone from doing entirely sample-based production to entirely live production to now a hybrid of the two and that's basically exactly what I've done. So those are the guys that when I listen to the records I'm pretty sure how they pulled something off but I'm not exactly sure. Like that “Three Kings” track Jake One did on that Rick Ross record? When you hear the source material, it's just like, “What the fuck? You're crazy! You're out of your mind! How do you do that?”

Have you ever had a fellow producer ask you to reveal how you created a specific song?

Possibly, but I'm not recalling it at the moment. It's more common for producers to tell another producer that they wished they had done that too or that you've killed a certain sample. That happens a lot.

RJD2's More Than It Isn't is out now on Electrical Connections.

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