Singer, songwriter, DJ and producer Ultra Naté is responsible for some of the biggest hits in house music. Born in the US, she found success in Europe after abandoning a major-label contract to work with the house music institution Strictly Rhythm.
Writing her breakout hit, “Free”, alongside producers Mood II Swing, Naté drew inspiration from R.E.M. in attempting to devise a “rock song that would work in clubs” with a powerful guitar-driven hook. The result became a bona fide ‘90s house anthem, topping charts across the globe and catapulting Naté to superstardom.
“Free” turns 25 this year, as Ultra Naté prepares to release her 10th studio album, ULTRA. The Billboard G.O.A.T.-honoured dance legend takes us on a guided tour of her discography as she picks out four pieces of studio gear that have helped to define her sound, and tells us more about the tracks they inspired.
1. E-mu SP-1200
“Rejoicing (I’ll Never Forget)" (Blue Notes In The Basement, 1991)
““Rejoicing (I’ll Never Forget)” was produced by the Basement Boys - Teddy Douglas, Thommy Davis and Jay Steinhour. It was the iconic SP-1200 drum machine that gave my debut album for Warner Brothers its unique "Basement Boys" sound. The SP 1200’s sampling rate of 26KHz, though limited, gives adequate bandwidth to drum sounds, but most importantly, it lends them an imperfect personality that a “perfect sampler” would otherwise have to attempt to imitate!
“This rousing anthem is just one of the highlights showcasing how it was used thoroughly and throughout Blue Notes In The Basement’s production. You can hear the ‘rawness’ of it. The SP 1200 drum machine crafted the Basement Boys sound that would become their recognizable trademark. “Rejoicing (I’l Never Forget)” characterized the thumping gospel stomp synonymous with the early days of house music and Baltimore specifically.”
2. SSL Mixing Desk
“Twisted” (Stranger Than Fiction, 2001)
“Another big piece of gear that was a large part of the recording process in the early days was the SSL board. I remember writing “Twisted” at a studio in London at the board with UK soul legends, D-Influence. Being able to write in-person at a studio seems novel these days but this is always a welcome creative process. Between the SSL’s famous bus compressor and Total Recall feature, it became an integral part of our writing process and this song’s evolution and original production.
“The automation features of the board made it much easier to do multiple passes of a mix. It gave us the ability to multi-track as much as we wanted between vocals and instruments without having to bounce down anything to make space. It kept the process fluid. Our original song and vocal production would ultimately be handed over to the inimitable talents of 4 Hero to bring the exquisite final version across the finish line for my fourth album, Stranger Than Fiction becoming a consistent fan favorite.”
3. Neumann TLM 103
“SNL” (Ultra Naté and Quentin Harris as Black Stereo Faith, 2017)
"A lot of my recent vocal recording sessions have been at my home studio in Maryland. One of my favorite microphones to use is my Neumann TLM 103. Its low signal-noise ratio is ideal for home studio vocal sessions where sound treatment is minimal and its low self-noise is impressive. Its dynamic range makes it a staple for me.
“I used this while recording a recent album collaboration with producer Quentin Harris for our inaugural side project, Black Stereo Faith as well as last year’s collaboration with Funk Cartel, “Supernatural.” It’s also been a saving grace and source of respite while writing and recording my forthcoming new album, ULTRA. I love how crisp, present, warm and resonant it makes my vocals. It can accurately capture any type of styling I’m aiming for.”
4. Yamaha SPX900
“Free” (Situation Critical, 1997)
“”Free” is the lead single from my third studio album, “Situation Critical” featuring the iconic guitar hook. At the time we had what seemed like endless racks of outboard gear that we got to play with and get the sound we wanted.
“Produced with Mood II Swing (Lem Springsteen and John Ciafone), Yamaha’s SPX900 Multi-Effect processor along with Lexicon’s classic PCM 80 Reverb and PCM 42 Delay effects processors, were part of what was used to augment and create that unmistakable guitar sound. Because Woody Pak’s infectious guitar playing was such a key part of the foundation of “Free” - it was super important to get the tone and color of the guitar just right. We succeeded!”
Ultra Naté x Funk Cartel ’Supernatural’ + Remixes is out now on BMG.