Thundamentals aren’t afraid to show their stripes on Everyone We Know. Relying on familiar engineer Dave Hammer to knock their diverse influences into line.
Story: Mark Davie
Album: Everyone We Know
In the early 2000s I went to an MC battle at Melbourne’s Hi-Fi Bar and witnessed a kid get mauled for one simple, yet contentious, taboo. I remember cringing when the first words flowed out of his mouth and something was conspicuously missing… that Aussie twang. You couldn’t get more Metropolitan than a Swanston Street basement in the middle of Melbourne’s CBD, but because he didn’t sound like he’d walked onstage wearing a wife beater, stubby in hand, he was lyrically assaulted by his occa rival.
For most of the last decade, mainstream Aussie hip hop has been militantly self-referential. At first the manifesto simply read, ‘you speak in an Aussie accent, you should rhyme in one too.’ Then as the Skip Hop sound cemented into its own genre, branching out from the breakbeat-heavy, string-laden, party anthem sound to incorporate influences from overseas was largely frowned upon.
Thundamentals have been pushing back against those restrictions for their last two albums, to the point where their latest, Everyone We Know encapsulates trap and grime alongside breakbeats, and even indie rock. DJ Pon Cho, one of the two producers in the band, reckons it’s all a bit of a croc anyway. “Everyone in the scene definitely listens to American hip hop, but no one really wants to go there because of the backlash,” he said. “American hip hop is where it started and that’s where all the innovation is happening. That’s where trap came from.
“Heaps of stuff is taboo in the Australian scene. It’s impossible to do anything without someone being pissed off about it. There are still a lot of purists who say if it didn’t come straight from vinyl onto an MPC then you’re a hack. I beg to differ. People who are successful and creative understand that it doesn’t really matter how you did it as long as the end result is cool.
“People liked our last record, So We Can Remember, because we were stepping outside of what people were comfortable listening to on the Australian hip hop spectrum. I don’t want to make a blanket statement, but most Australian hip hop before that record was more in the vein of pianos, live drums and violins — uplifting tunes. That Hoods sound is iconic; people love that sound, and it’s a good sound. We’re trying to use more influences we listen to. Still stay true to what people like about Oz hip hop, and the band, but pay more homage to that musical American stuff.”
Both Morgs and Pon Cho heavily rely on Native Instruments’ Maschine in their workflow. Here’s how they integrate it:
Morgs: “I’ve still got an Akai MPC1000 that I used heavily on the previous record, which is weird because I’ve got Maschine. Now I’ve switched to almost solely working with Maschine in the studio and using the MPC live. Every now and then, if I’ve got my turntable setup but not my computer, I’ll record it into my MPC. However, I’m so obsessed with Maschine because it’s easy to use.
“Sometimes we sequence in Maschine, but we always end up bringing the multi-track out into Cubase. I started using it when I was 17, and it’s stuck with me. I moved to Ableton Live, then Logic for a bit, but I’d keep going back to Cubase for little tasks, so I just decided to stick with it. When we work on stuff we’re generally working out of my system. Pon Cho will usually keep his demos to about six tracks, then bounce them out and bring them over.”
Pon Cho: “I’ll sketch an idea out in Maschine because it’s easy to get a loop going without copying and pasting audio; you can click and unblock stuff which makes it heaps faster. Feel is always important in hip hop. It’s nicer to play it in on pads and get in touch with the groove a bit more.”
EVERYTHING YOU DON’T KNOW
DJ Morgs, a longer-standing member of the band and the other producer, has always tried to keep Thundamentals diverse, “rather than having Oz hip hop sounding albums,” he said. “On our earlier records, we had surf influenced songs, and darker ’90s hip hop songs as well as Middle Eastern style tracks. I still buy and sample heaps of records from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, which can lead in strange directions. There’s four of us and we all have different tastes and switch between what we like at any given time.”
There’s a bit of a yin and yang vibe going on between the two producers. Morgs’ sample-heavy background balanced by Pon Cho’s jazz training. While one reaches into the vinyl crate, the other will be scrolling through his soft synths.
“When I first started, I was obsessed with making everything from record samples,” said Morgs. “I would sample bass lines and spend three days trying to tune one bass note. It was hell. Pon Cho’s come from a jazz background and is always looking for a soft synth. Out of those two things we work easily together.”
Both Morgs and Pon Cho don’t profess to be masters of the diverse range of genres and styles on Everyone We Know, but they’re quick studies. “A lot we figure out by trial and error,” said Morgs. “Also, so many people are uploading their ideas on the internet, you might hear a reverb trick and not be too sure how to do it. Then in two seconds, someone’s got an instructional video on the internet teaching you how to do it.”
Pon Cho explained the process of making beats is usually a personal tutorial in some technique: “Most beat makers would probably feel the same way. You listen to something and wonder how they did it. Then you figure out how they did it, make three or four beats using that technique, and one of them really sticks which becomes ‘the one’.
“An example would be My Friends Say. Around the time we wrote that I’d written two similar beats before it where I’d drawn volume automation on the synth to get that swelling sound. Usually when I do synth stacks it’s two or three sounds. That one was mostly just Serum, it was before I started stacking synths with V Collection to make it sound a bit more unique than just the power saw patch.”
BREAK BEAT & MERGE
While diversity is the aim, there are some fine breakbeats on the album too. The song Sally features one, and Morgs said the funk track Never Say Never has two breaks merged together. “I had the pitch at about +8,” he recalled. “Then I brought them into Maschine, chopped them up and got the groove I was looking for.” From there it’s a process of layering to take them from ‘good enough’ to a place where the original break isn’t identifiable. “We went further with the breakbeats to make sure people weren’t going to hear it on the record one day and think, ‘oh, that was the break from that.’ Usually we do a high and low cut on the breaks then layer them up with kicks and snares. We also layered some hi-hat because we had Gusto’s [from Hermitude] kit in the studio.
Pon Cho played trumpet on that track, and the bass was cobbled together from a real bass they sampled in the studio. None of them are bass players and while they were trying to work out how to get the right impact in the bass line they naturally turned to sampling. They were working out of Glebe Recording Studios, Col Joye’s old place, and he had “a really nice bass hanging on the wall,” said Morgs. “It had old strings on it and sounded really clean and smooth, but it wasn’t really the sound we needed. I had an old Yamaha I bought for $50 that had been sitting in my cupboard for five years. It needed a battery, so we found one and tuned it up. We ended up using that, recording nine different bass notes and playing it on Maschine because we knew how we wanted the bass line to feel.”
There are always a few live layers in a Thundamentals tracks, whether it’s bass, percussion or live guitar, and they made use of Glebe’s re-amping system to send sounds out through guitar amps or capture the hall reverb. Hermitude also have around 30 analogue synths set up and patched in, but Pon Cho tended to resort to Arturia’s V Collection of soft synths. “I’ll probably piss lots of people off by saying this, but I didn’t really notice any difference between the 30-odd analogue synths Hermitude had in the studio and the Arturia V collection,” said Pon Cho. “I’m sure there is a difference, but by the time it’s been through the hands of a really talented mix engineer, they can kind of get back some of that crustiness and warmth you might not have in a soft synth.”
ABOUT DAVE HAMMER
Talking to mix engineer, Dave Hammer, on the phone I detected a slight New Zealand accent. “Don’t hold it against me,” said Dave. “I came here in about 2000. I was looking to get into the music business and it felt healthier here than in New Zealand. It was hard kicking off but 17 years later things are going okay.”
Dave’s not solely a hip hop engineer, lately he’s been producing and co-writing with Megan Washington, and he’s been involved in producing and recording contestants over several seasons of The Voice.
“I just love music in general,” explained Dave. “I try not to be within one genre. There are things I don’t really do well, but the concept of how I think about music can be applied to a few different areas. I get off on sounds and songs. I’m all about a song’s journey from beginning to the end — long-winded pieces of music can sometimes lose my attention. It’s the listener’s mentality in the pop world. The only challenge is when I have to bounce around between projects and capture different headspaces. You’ve got to get a feel for whatever the artist needs, otherwise it doesn’t come across right.”
He owned Def Wolf Studios until selling it recently, and now rents a production space there. “It suits my needs, which is mainly production and mixing,” explained Dave. “If I want to do a band I just hire out a larger room.”
He’s got a Bricasti reverb, a couple of Chandler preamps, a few compressors, a Manley reference cardioid microphone, Barefoot monitors, a piano and a bunch of analogue synths. However he mostly mixies in the box and has bought so many UAD plug-ins over the years it feels like he’s trying to collect the whole set. “I’ve bought way too many plug-ins,” he said. “If you pull up an 1176 on UAD and compare it to an outboard, it doesn’t quite sound the same. But it’s probably as good as it’s going to get and as long as you don’t hit it too hard, they sound great.”
RIGHT ‘TOOL’ FOR THE JOB
Dave Hammer is the mix engineer Thundamentals have been relying on for their last two records. “We did preliminary mixes of all the songs, but in the end, felt more comfortable handing it off to Dave,” said Morgs. “We had a space in mind when we were making it, but once Dave got in there, he created more width in the songs. It’s why we were so keen to get him back onboard. To have someone solely concentrating on the mix added another perspective.”
Dave Hammer isn’t worried too much about Oz hip hop politics, after all, Dave said, “that’s why hip-hop is an exciting genre because people that make hip-hop aren’t worried about whether the instrument or the sound fits into the genre. They’re more interested in experimentation and trying to find sounds that are different to other people.”
Hammer doesn’t have a set hip hop mix process with 808 presets dialled in, and kick chains ready to go. Mixes can take a couple of weeks of back and forth trying to build the mix around the hook, which Hammer can identify anywhere. On Reebok Pumps, it wasn’t the beat or the vocal that hooked him, it was the comical lyrics. “The raps in that are hilarious!” he said. “I was just getting off on that.”
With the low end, he just “mucks around until I find a good place for it. You’ve got to be careful when you’re compressing low end. Sometimes I’ll let it go straight to the master bus, other times I’ll parallel process it, or send it out of the box through something to give it character without losing mass.
“It generally changes track to track. When you’ve nailed a sound you think you can deploy to every other track on the record, you move onto the next song and it doesn’t feel right when you apply the same principles. You’ve got to rebuild the ideas within the context of that mix.”
Hammer tends to keep his processing as streamlined as possible, finding that clarity helps the arrangement shine. “I have a love/hate relationship with EQ because I can hear the phase movement,” he explained. “I try and do as little as I possibly can. Sometimes filtering can help. Depending on the arrangement, I would probably filter out the low end of a kick drum to find the soft spot. There’s no real formula for hip hop sonic arrangement either. Some songs will have a lot of low end in the kick drum others will have none, so getting the low end right is super-important. It’s not like a rock band where the kick drum is virtually the same sound and sonic arrangement for each track.
“Sometimes I’ll replace the kick drum or add another, but generally I try not to. On a couple of the songs I ran the kick drum out into a preamp to distort it. I also hardly ever put a compressor over the drum bus to manipulate the groove. The groove should be in the arrangements and seems to be more accentuated as a byproduct of parts coming through clearer.”
Throughout his process, that’s Hammer’s goal; to make sure every part of the arrangement can be heard. “They do a great job and the sounds are all there,” he continued. “My job was to bring a bit more colour to it, give it some mass and make sure they’re heard in the mix rather than letting sounds add up on top of each other and becoming a wall of sound or noise.
“I like to pan things as hard as I possibly can while keeping mindful of what should live in the centre, which is vocal, kick and snare. The kick in hip-hop should be massive so I filter out anything that doesn’t have important low end information to bring up my headroom.”
NEUMANN, NO MAN
Pon Cho: “We used Hermitude’s 25-year old Neumann U87 for vocals. In the end it made it slightly difficult because we were experiencing some sibilance issues in the mix. We used to use a Shure SM7B, which works well for rap. We also used the U87 for every female part on the record, except for Peta & The Wolves, who recorded themselves and when my partner did some backing vocals on Sally, which I used an SM7B for.
Dave wasn’t as fussed by the choice. “Sibilance is a crazy thing, sometimes I hear commercial records and freak out about the sibilance, then I hear some international rap artists and their sibilance sounds super-silky and almost beautiful. You’ve got a sibilance issue to deal with in every vocal chain. I don’t feel like any microphone records sibilance correctly.”
Dave outlined the way he builds up a mix, starting with bringing everything up and crafting a balance: “Once I have a balance that sounds close enough to show the guys, then I tweak that, clean up audio, carve up sounds that need more attention, and try to match those kicks and snares while making sure the vocals have got space to pop over the top.
“To keep those vocals out front, I start with some EQ to clear out the gunk, and maybe use some tape saturation or distortion, running in parallel. Even though it’s a form of dynamic processing, distortion can bring things forward without having to compress it. You’ve got to be really careful of hitting plug-ins too hard; they can sound bad, real fast. I generally don’t hit them hard and bring them in parallel. It seems to have the same effect without the sound of the plug-in deterioration.
“Some vocals will have a compressor on the track and there’ll be another compressor running in parallel getting the compressed feed. It’s a great way of controlling close-ups. By messing with the attack and release of the compressor in parallel, you can really shape the close-up sound and make the vocal more attack-y or more laid-back. I might use an optical-style compressor over the lead vocal track to smooth it out while letting the transient through. Then run a FET in parallel to mess with the attack and release and bring back the explosiveness.
“I love dry vocals, and the juxtaposition against wet vocals. A dry vocal feels even drier followed by a vocal that’s super-wet. Sometimes the effects returns might get a bit of stereo widening, so the room sound on the vocals gets a bit of width. Other times I might mess with the old trick of dropping it down an octave, distort it and blending it in. It worked on one track, then I did it with a group of vocals and they told me to turn it off! You try a bunch of things and some work, others don’t.”
Knowing that Everyone We Know combined so many influences, Hammer spent a lot of time making sure they’d all play we’ll together on the same record. “I get really obsessive over how album’s sound, I reference how every song sounds against each other,” he said. “There are a few different sounds on this record, there’s the breakbeat laidback Aussie hip-hop style, and then you’ve got Reebok Pumps with a big 808 and trap-inspired bass. It’s a major consideration, to try and get those different sounds on the same record.”