Super-Producer Diplo on Creating Hits with UAD Plug-Ins
In a little over ten years, Diplo (real name, Thomas Wesley Pentz), has gone from honing his craft, deeply immersed amidst the DJ culture of South Florida, to being one of the most in-demand producers in music.
Notching massive hits with the likes of M.I.A. (their Grammy-nominated track “Paper Planes” dominated radio and club play for the better part of 2008/09), Beyoncé, Kid Cudi, Usher, Chris Brown, Robyn, and Shakira, Diplo has even turned a Dogg into a Lion, with Snoop’s 2013 reggae-styled Reincarnated.
Wth M.I.A. co-producer, Switch, Diplo created the Jamaican dancehall project, Major Lazer. Their 2009 release Guns Don’t Kill People…Lazers Do became far more than the cult disc that many critics assumed it would be, instead crossing over with mainstream success. Diplo continued to hone the group as well as his own personal sonic palate: a myriad of musical tastes and production styles that ranges from the baile funk (funk carioca) of Rio de Janeiro to reggaeton of the Amazon, American/UK mathcore, and even recently re-exploring the twerking of New Orleans bounce music.
Major Lazer’s new album, Free the Universe, features artists such as Santigold, Amber of Dirty Projectors, Flux Pavilion, Elephant Man, Peaches, Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, Shaggy, Wyclef Jean, Bruno Mars, and The Partysquad . Here’s what Diplo had to say about his creativity to and from the suitcase each night, and how he uses Universal Audio UAD-2 Satellite and UAD-Powered Plug-Ins to fire his creativity.
Your style has always pulled from diverse elements. What do you attribute that to?
As a kid growing up in Florida, I loved the radio DJs, like DJ Laz and Jam Pony Express. I was into Miami bass, freestyle, pop music, and then Florida breaks — really just bass music in general. That’s what everyone listens to in Florida, so it’s not too weird. As I got older, I delved deeper into metal and hardcore punk, then hip-hop, and into the production side of things. Producers like The Bomb Squad (Public Enemy), J-Swift (The Pharcyde), and a lot of west coast stuff like Dr. Dre, and the Hieroglyphics Crew in the Bay Area really influenced me. I also really dug, Cypress Hill, Q-Tip, Pete Rock, and DJ Shadow.
I was also obsessed with collecting old music. But as a DJ in the clubs, it was the Florida style that would stay with me the most — and still does to this day.
What did your earliest gear setup consist of?
Starting off, I had a Gemini mixer with five seconds of sampling. I would basically loop weird samples I found and scratch over them. My first “real” set up was an Akai S20 that I stole from [a music store] in Orlando. I was so nervous I didn’t leave my house for a week because I thought the police were waiting outside! Then I borrowed an E-mu SP-1200 from System D-128, [an avant-garde multi-media artist] from Florida who helped me learn about producing. Finally, I bought my first desktop and a kid gave me ACID 2.0 and I began learning how to sequence music properly and learn new stuff.
I presume your current setup is mostly software and controllers?
Yes, primarily soft-synths. However they are manipulated and resampled so often that the final result is simply audio on a track, rather than a specific VST MIDI instrument. We will use basic keyboard controllers often, and some members of the crew will play around with Native Instruments Maschine or Ableton Push. But at the end of the day, we are working and building the song inside the DAW without much external control.
You’ve been using UAD Powered Plug-Ins for nearly two years now. How were you introduced to them?
I had been hearing about them for sometime, but with my touring schedule it wasn't until the UAD-2 Satellite became available that I considered getting involved with the UAD platform. At the studio we have a UAD-2 DSP Accelerator card in one of our Mac Pros. Soon we'll be updating to the Apollo interface as well.
“I definitely have channel strips made up entirely of UAD plug-ins that I will break out to inspire an instrument or sound.”
What does the sound of UAD plug-ins mean to you creatively?
I find that the UAD stuff can be pushed harder than other plug-ins, which goes a long way towards emulating real-life hardware. Often when doing resampling and sound design, the UAD plugs will pull out amazing artifacts from samples that other plugs just can’t. For example, resampling a chopped voice through UAD plug-ins will often yield a variety of effects, all usable. Other plug-ins seem to crap out when you push them the “wrong way.”
Any specific examples you can share from the new album?
In all honesty, many songs on Free The Universe got a taste of UAD Powered Plug-Ins, but sometimes only in a final mix sense and sometimes in more of a sound-design sense, where the audio would be manipulated by the plugs, but then get bounced down to a new region rather than keep the plug-in engaged. On the track, “Get Free” for instance, the hard sounding kick/snare sound was ran through the Teletronix LA-3A compressor plug-in once or twice, in between being processed with other layers.
Reggae and dancehall originated in the days of tape and tape delay. How do you recreate that sound?
There was lots of Roland RE-201 Space Echo plug-in and FATSO Jr./Sr. Tape Sim and Compressor plug-in analog squashing going on. The FATSO is used quite often on the record for drums and vocals, as well as instrument sounds. It was often used on busses, such as the drums and bass in the song “Playground”, but that’s more of a traditional use. It would just as often get used for creative purposes during resampling.
On the track, “Get Free” the choppy skipping vocals near the end were processed with the Roland RE-201 Space Echo and numerous layers of compression and resampling to get the overall effect heard.
Do you have favorite starting treatments worked up for your virtual instruments, or do you start each from scratch?
I've got loads of instrument strips from years of making music, some of them are wild and some are more bread and butter go to sounds. But I definitely have some channel strips made up entirely of UAD plug-ins that I can break out to inspire an instrument or sound.
Do you use many of the same "go-to" plug-ins?
Yes. For vocalists, I nearly always use the Pultec EQP 1-A and the 1176 Compressor. The Pultec, especially, has a great ability to boost up the shine or fresh quality of a vocal, and the 1176 keeps it in place.
What UAD Powered Plug-Ins of late have got you really stoked?
I’m still getting to know a lot of the new stuff. I’m actually looking for other UAD users to help me find some new tricks all the time. When it comes to analog sound or reproduction, another UAD user, Ariel Rechtshaid – who has co-written with me a lot on Justin Bieber, Usher, No Doubt, Major Lazer, etc. – is very good at stuff like that. So I’ve been trying out the UAD Studer A800 Multichannel Tape Recorder Plug-In and the Ampex ATR-102 Mastering Tape Recorder Plug-In.
“UAD plug-ins can be pushed harder than other plug-ins, which goes a long way towards emulating real-life hardware.”
Do you use any Universal Audio analog gear?
Yeah, in our studios we have both a 6176 Vintage Channel Strip and a reissue 1176LN set up in our vocal chain. Much of the vocals on the record were recorded through those. Usually we’ll track with very light compression via those two components, so we are almost always choosing the UAD Powered Plug-Ins versions again later for the final mix or further sound design.
What projects do you have coming up that we should watch out for?
I always get in trouble when I mention this stuff (laughs). Man, I’ve got too many — a lot!
Photos by David Goggin