Currently proving to the world that there can be more to metal than breakneck guitar riffs and sexist lyrics, Living Colour's Vernon Reid talks samples and technology with Lars Lofas and Nick Armington.
Prominent in the energy of Living Colour's musical stories is the dynamic guitar sound of virtuoso Vernon Reid, whose playing is augmented by more than a few technological tricks...
VERNON REID'S MASTERY of his instrument often seems almost unearthly - or so a more poetical soul might have it. But in this age of semi-skilled multi-instrumentalists, his dedication to one instrument the guitar - and his unique playing style make a significant contribution to both the critical acclaim and commercial success of the band Living Colour.
Too easily dismissed on casual listening as yet another brand of "metal" rock, the music on the group's debut album, Vivid, addresses a variety of subjects. Reid's guitar blasts through an unexpectedly wide spectrum of styles, at times paying homage to early power rockers like The MC5, Jimi Hendrix, Ten Years After and The Who, while at other times dashing off funk licks that would make Nile Rodgers or George Clinton grin. Most of the time, though, Reid wails with a sound to which he alone can lay claim. And alongside Reid's guitar runs a healthily technical vein. Samples as varied as snatches of John F Kennedy, sit easily with sample loops that provide rhythmic as well as tonal elements of the band's music.
Together with vocalist Corey Glover, bassist Muzz Skillings, and drummer Will Calhoun, all of whom are strong musicians in their own right, Reid has managed to create a record which makes a strong social and economic statement while managing to go platinum in the US and attract much attention in the UK. This album, propelled by the success of its first single, 'Cult of Personality' as well as the band's energetic live shows, has established Vernon Reid as a modern-day guitar hero for a new generation of young players.
Despite the fame and attention granted to him in recent months, Reid remains disarmingly shy and soft-spoken. The transformation he undergoes night after night on the stage is remarkable, as up close he's decidedly unlike his onstage persona. We recently caught up with him while shopping at Manny's Music in his home town of New York City, curious about exactly how he manages to create those incredible sounds that make Living Colour's music so undeniably vivid.
"Most of the time", says Reid, "we've been lucky in finding the right sound by trying all kinds of things until we find something we like a lot." Pressed for details, he offered examples from the recording of Vivid. "We took a lot of different amplifiers and put them in a big room. Then we miked all the different corners of the room, with mics close in, far away, and in places where they would catch the sound from an amp bouncing off a wall, and brought all of these mics into the console.
"1 think we had practically one of every amp made, including Marshalls, Fenders, Vox and Dean Markleys. For example, on 'Cult of Personality', we used the Marshalls and a Dean Markley DR150 amp, and the sound on the solo is a combination of the Marshall, the Dean Markley and one of the new Fender Showman amps."
Although the system of outboard electronics and preamps that he uses onstage to recreate the album's sound is quite elaborate, Reid recalls that he followed a much more low-tech course in the studio. "At the time we were recording Vivid, I still had a lot of floor pedals that I had used for years.
"Two of my favourites were a distortion box called The Rat, made by Pro-Co Sound, and an old ADA chorus reverb that didn't have MIDI. I also had some Boss reverb, chorus and flanger pedals. For a long time, I was using an Electric Mistress flanger made by Electro-Harmonix and an old Roland floor-pedal chorus device.
"I experimented with using a lot of old gear that hadn't been used a lot recently. For example, there's a Vox Cry Baby wah-wah on the song 'What's Your Favorite Color?', and a Talkbox on the track called 'Memories Can't Wait', which was first done by Talking Heads. The Talkbox was also put through a reverse gated reverb at the board, which clipped the attack of the vocal and gave it a very 'otherworldly' kind of sound."
REID AND HIS bandmates also make use of numerous non-musical samples on Vivid, which add a sense of historical context to the music. "We listened to a lot of old records to get the samples for the album", he explains. "The John Kennedy speech on 'Cult of Personality' was on tape, and we ended up using the actual recording instead of a sample, but we did a lot of old-fashioned tape editing to make it sound the way it did.
"If you listen to the original speech, where he says the words 'Ask not what your country can do for you...', it's spoken much slower, with a lot of dramatic effect. We had to edit out the pauses in the speech, and we also sped up the two-track tape of Kennedy while slowing down the multitrack when we laid it into the song. Later on, when we started playing the song live, we sampled it into an Akai S900 sampler, and Will, our drummer, triggers it with an Octapad."
Reid himself does much of the sample design for the band, and is currently updating his stage gear to make more use of the MIDI interfaces built into the equipment he's using these days.
"When you take a rhythmic sample, and put in a long loop, it ends up sounding and acting almost like a sequencer."
"I've started to use a device called the RFC1 MIDI Mitigator, made by Lake Butler Sound in Florida, which runs my whole system now.
"The Mitigator is a MIDI controller for guitar, with five footswitches and a display built into the unit. I use it to send MIDI note messages and implement program changes. My guitar is wired normally, with 1/4" guitar cables looping through all the effects, and the Mitigator is hooked up with MIDI cables going to each unit's MIDI In and Thru jacks. Each footswitch can simultaneously change programs and turn a MIDI note on or off.
"The Mitigator also has a keyboard mode, so that a MIDI note is transmitted as long as you keep your foot on the pedal. You can also set it up so that hitting a pedal once sends a MIDI Note On message, and hitting another pedal sends a Note Off. I'm going to use it more when I start using some of the sample loops we've developed onstage."
Sample loops? This sounds intriguing, and potentially puts Reid in a league with ex-King Crimson main man Robert Fripp and sometime David Sylvian collaborator David Torn. Reid admits the idea's a little unconventional, and certainly a far cry from the slow-attack sound that's come to be associated with MIDI guitars.
"What we are doing is taking a bunch of samples and grouping them across the keyboard. When you take a rhythmic sample, and put in a long loop, it ends up sounding and acting almost like a sequencer. This way, you can have a whole sequence thing with a lot of information in it assigned to a single MIDI note, so if you keygroup a whole bunch of these things in your sampler, one program can conceivably have a ton of stuff in it.
"We use this technique when we play 'What's Your Favorite Color?' live. There's a sample of Chicago house music that we use in a break section of the song, and I use the Mitigator to turn on a MIDI note to start this loop, which sounds like a sequence. Some of that is going into Will's monitor, and he'll play in time with the sample. It's cool.
"On top of that, with my current setup, I can actually string together a bunch of sample loops for different parts of a song. If I adjust all of the loops to play at the same tempo, I just hit the next pedal every time I want a part to change. Plus, I've programmed the Mitigator to send program change messages to my ADA MP1 Guitar Preamp and my DigiTech IPS33 Pitch Shifter, so! can play the samples and change the sound of my normal guitar at the same time."
When Living Colour appeared as the musical guests on America's Saturday Night Live TV program a few months ago, an Akai S900 was sitting prominently in Reid's amp rack. But recently, he's traded it in.
"The band recently bought a brand-new Akai S1000HD sampler, with a hard disk", he explains. "In fact, I've been sitting in front of the thing all week, loading in samples from the S900 and from the Oberheim DPX sample player, which I used before the band bought the S 1000.
"We're starting to use a lot more sampling live, so we want to improve the quality. The S1000 is really easy to use. In a way, I'm kind of a dunderhead, because I have to read manuals over and over and over again, fiddle with the gear, then go back to the manual and fiddle around some more until I get it down and figure it out.
"The Akai's got a really logical operating system, and I love the fact that it comes with a hard disk built in - it's great to have all the samples there ready to use so that you don't have to reload them each time you turn the machine off. In the past, whenever we played live, one of our technicians would keep changing the disks, checking his set list to make sure that the right disk was loaded at the right time. Now, we'll be able to control most of that ourselves."
Despite all the technology that's around him, Reid quixotically - and humbly - admits that the toys he's acquired over the past year or two serve mainly to enhance the band's overall presence, rather than his own sound. "I'm a little bit amazed by all the attention to my playing, because I've sounded more or less the same for quite some time now.
"Even though we've bought all of this equipment, what's still really personal is what's inside of you as a player. Someone could go out and buy all the same stuff I have, but unless a person really wants to study how I play, he's not going to sound like me. What really makes a player unique is the way he or she decides to use technology and samples. It's not really what the equipment brings to you, it's what you bring to the equipment!"
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