Detroit Native Jimmy Edgar has been a rule-breaker since day one. From starting on a home studio setup first centred around FL Studio and then a plethora of hardware being sequenced by Logic, Edgar has always followed his own ears as opposed to seeking answers from those around him. Choosing to purposely redline his mixes and record with as little volume as possible to maximise noise would be things most producers would avoid.
But Edgar has applied both techniques to his rhythmic exercises, and what he’s doing clearly works, as his debut full-length was released by the venerable Warp Records when Edgar was just 18. Since then, his discography has exploded, with multi-hued productions in both the club and rap genres, and while he has worked solo with a variety of setups, the last few years have seen Edgar team up with a number of vocalists as well.
Following a move to Berlin that saw the producer dive deep into a modular-based setup, Edgar returned to the States and released an almost never-ending amount of music via his own label and multimedia platform Ultramajic.
His most recent full-length, Cheetah Bend, released in a somewhat piecemeal fashion over the course of early 2021 by LA label Innovative Leisure, finds Edgar in both collaborative and solitary modes. The 14-track record not only features guests including Danny Brown, Matt Ox, Rochelle Jordan, Hudson Mohawke and the late Sophie, but also sees Edgar demonstrating some of the finest songwriting and sound design chops of his career.
While Edgar has always dipped his toes in various modes - as also evidenced in his time as JETS with collaborator Travis Stewart, aka Machinedrum - Cheetah Bend is his most synthesised effort yet, though not quite in the way you’d expect.
Where previous albums have found Edgar’s programming focused on classic Detroit machines like the Oberheim Matrix 1000 and the Moog Voyager, his new record instead sees Edgar exploring what he described as ‘Slipstick Synthesis’. These types of sounds tend to explore the more angular side of FM synthesis, no doubt partially inspired by Sophie’s collaboration.
So let’s start with location - are you currently in LA?
“I’m often in LA but not at the moment! I’m currently working on new productions and building a new studio in Atlanta. But I also have a studio where I am now in Portland. I love the trees here.”
Tell us a bit about how you got into producing and what inspired you early on. We know you’ve been doing it for quite a while now. Do you remember what your first setup was?
“I was three years old and I remember my father playing drums with his hands. I was fascinated with rhythm ever since, so I played drums very early for years.
“When I was about eight, I had some RCA cables, a mic and a double deck cassette recorder. I would make experiments with the tape - bouncing, recording, changing speeds. These were my first recordings. I was able to get some equipment when I was an early teenager and this got me into producing music. Some of my early equipment was ASRX, MC303, Alesis Reverb, SP202.”
What were you recording to when you had that early setup? Were you doing full multi-tracking or just live jams?
“Still using tape and actually did a lot of recording onto VHS. I was also very into making videos so producing music was a means for me to have music in my visuals.”
Did the interest in music come before the interest in video?
“I was very into the idea of multi tracking, but I wasn’t set up for it yet. I eventually got into it when I started using Fruity Loops. The interest was there for both music and visual, however - I’ve always been a visually inclined person. The two are interrelated. I just felt more limited with music since I was young and didn’t have the equipment I needed. Eventually, that changed when I got into computers.”
So how old were you when you started using computers? And how did you find out about FruityLoops?
“I got my first computer when I was 15. I started using trackers, Rebirth, Cool Edit. Then, when I first discovered FruityLoops, I felt like I could finally make full-fledged compositions. This is how I made my first works for Warp Records. With FL and Reaktor. I was around 17 or 18 at the time.”
Were you integrating the more analogue stuff into FL as well or were they two separate worlds at the time? We know when a lot of people start out in the box, they keep things ITB for lack of knowledge...
“I didn’t integrate analogue into FL early on. This was my opportunity to learn all computer techniques, so I put away the external equipment for a while. This was great to learn but eventually I found inspiration in making my own samples and sound files.”
Were you working with anyone else in the studio for mixing/final mixdowns or were you doing it all yourself back then?
“No, this was completely just me in my bedroom! I just had a passion for making music. I wanted to make what I wanted to hear.”
How geeky were you getting with the mixing and EQing stuff back then? Did you have a good grasp of those things or were you just going by ear? Did you read about that aspect of production too?
“I didn’t know anything! I didn’t research anything. I honestly didn’t even know where to look or read. I was just going by ear. I felt like nothing applied to my situation. Since I was just using FL, I was kind of anti-information as, at that time, I felt like it would lead me astray. I don’t agree with that now, but that was me as a teenager. I felt as though following my highest excitement was the key, so I just did that.”
Now, with the internet, it’s almost like there is too much information to get and it can stop you from being productive. How much of that do you do now? Learning about new production stuff and new gear, etc?
“I recently learned a lot about mixing, especially for my album. I usually just research subjects that I feel I could use more knowledge in. Recently I learned about subtractive EQing, which has been amazing. I also finally understand the parameters on compressors, which is probably why I almost never used compression on my music up until Cheetah Bend.
“My tendency for compression was to do saturation, which is a technique I also like. And I’d always red-line everything. It’s been part of my sound. Which is actually clipping… the difference now is that I know how to control it.”
That’s surprising given how clean your mixdowns sound…
“Yes! My mixes are very clean because it’s highly organised and I always leave room for silence. But I red-line everywhere… in the mix, in the track, in the sample, in the mastering. It’s a technique I use to sculpt the sound. I red-line on my Burl Vancouver ADC but also ITB in Ableton. I use it creatively; I just always loved the way it sounded.”
Tell us about your new album. Where was work done on it?
“Most of this new album Cheetah Bend was created in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Detroit. At the tail end I did the mixes in Portland. But yes, I bounced around a lot to make it all happen.”
What is currently the basis of your ‘home’ studio setup in Portland (both DAW and hardware)? And what sort of gear did you bring with you when traveling and collaborating?
“My studio is based around an Apple desktop with various arrays of analogue synths both new and vintage. Lots of ’90s digital racks. 500 series preamps and EQs, compressors, mastering bus. It’s all connected via TTS patch. Various modular equipment.
“For travelling, I don’t bring any equipment as I love to work in nice studios that have engineers. When I work in any other studio it’s almost exclusively to record vocals, so it’s essential there is my favourite kind of equipment. Great mics, Pultec compressors, Neve preamps... stuff like this. Standard high quality recording. As long as it’s recorded with a great fundamental and a solid foundation, then I can take it back to my studio for further processing.”
When you are recording vocals at a studio with a vocalist, are you typically just working to a stereo bounce or do you have stems there that you can make adjustments to?
“It’s literally a stereo bounce. I like to be in my own zone when producing music. There are often times when I don’t have any music available and I am making music in the studio for rappers. For this, I pull up Ableton and use samples that I have created in my studio. This feels more akin to DJing though, as production needs the mind space to create something amazing.”
Your discography is quite broad and varied. One of the first records that brought you acclaim was Color Strip. Can you tell us about your setup around that time. How old were you?
“I was 22-23? That album was created with an Arp, Matrix 1000, TR-808, Moog Voyager, MS-10. I was recording on a crappy-sounding MBox and I often recorded tracks super low volume so I could get more noise in the signal.
“It was a great little studio setup. I could get the TR-808 going, play chords on the Matrix1000 and have a couple of choices for other sounds. Then when I had a song I felt worthy of recording, then I would track it in. While tracking I would start to embellish a bit and then I would have a full song. I still have 100s of songs from that album process. I was using computer speakers for the monitors. It was amazing because it’s easy for a novice to mix on. You have to be super good at mixing to use high-end monitors.”
What was inspiring you musically at around that time?
“I was really into the sound of Detroit at that time. Drexciya, Juan Atkins, etc. This setup and musicality was a bit of a response to it. It was like my contribution.”
And then you moved to Berlin, correct?
“In Berlin I had discovered modular synthesis. However, I did start acquiring a lot of equipment in Berlin and this is where I got into Eurorack and made Majenta. It’s a different album. It was made in the moment in Berlin, which is where I finished it. Tracks were originally started in NYC and Detroit. I made it on a mono speaker, not sure why, I just happened to.”
So getting into modular stuff in Berlin, was that at all because you hadn’t brought any other gear with you? Or was that sort of a coincidence? Why did you get into modular then? Were you bored of other analogue synths at the time?
“No, I was just resetting my knowledge. The thing I love about music is that I feel like I wanna do my sound on lots of different kinds of equipment. So, I just built a new studio from scratch. Modular was the most exciting thing at that time, not many artists were using it yet.”
At what point in your career did you start collaborating with other artists? Why did that change come about after being pretty solo for a while? Cheetah Bend seems like it has the most guests of all your releases, right?
“My early music experimented with a lot of vocal stuff, mostly me and my friends. I really wanted to work with incredible vocalists. I saw a distinct connection between rap and dance music that I was interested in.”
Electronic producer vs rap producer - does it feel like wearing different hats? Do you distinguish where ideas go at the beginning of working on them?
“So, I wanted to try this sound of rap-club music. It’s pretty much the same, just depends on how you arrange the song and produce it. Club music and rap is the same thing for me. Club music might be a bit of a different arrangement. But with rap music, I want it to bounce like club music so that’s important for me. They have to really bump.”
How do you decide what to work on in the studio? Do you write with any particular vocalist in mind?
“No, I always go into the studio with whatever excites me the most... If I “try” to do something, it doesn’t work very well unless I have an intention with a collaborator in the room. Some days I write compositions, chords. Some days I make samples... some days I make beats... etc.
“I have a whole ritual I do to get the best out of my time, and be happy with the results.”
Let’s talk about Cheetah Bend a bit given that that’s your upcoming release. This record came out in a rollout fashion. What was the idea behind that as opposed to just a standard LP release?
“I wanted to build the story of Cheetah Bend over time, it just felt right rather than the typical way albums come out. Each song has a story in that way. I don’t even know what the story is, but it feels like something unique in the sound.”
Tell us a bit about working with Sophie. Did you work together in person? What did you learn from working with her and what do you think she learned from working with you?
“We met around 2010, I believe. We immediately became friends and yes, we would always meet in the studio if we weren’t going out to the club. We both use the Elektron equipment very heavily so we were sharing techniques for that and exchanging SysEx. Sophie really started to explore Karplus-Strong string synthesis in the Elektron world and it inspired me to get into that, too, mostly to emulate sounds of real life or sounds of things we liked.
“It led me to do a lot of reading about synthesis, namely a technique called slipstick. This is the synthesis that you use for physical objects that bend and resonate different materials. ”
Which Elektron machines were you using? Do you have any favourites?
“The Monomachine is my favourite thing. Octatrack is also great. I really love that the Monomachine parameters can really stretch out the possibilities.”
Since we are diving a bit more into gear specifically, can you tell us if there were any other things that were crucial to Cheetah Bend? Other synths, plugins, hardware?
“A few other things that were used a lot were the Kyma, API2500, API512C, Maselec MPL, Eventide H8000, Serge Modular, Overstayer Saturator. The Korg Mono/Poly was also used a lot, as were the MPC60 and S900, Nord Wave and Nord Modular.”
So earlier we talked a bit about mixing but we wanted to return to that because the mixes on this record manage to be both incredibly clean but still bump incredibly hard. Where did you do the mixing and what monitors do you rely on these days? Are you mixing ITB?
“I did all the mixing at home on Barefoot Monitors. I mixed most of the tracks through the BURL summing and ADC. I had an API2500 and Maselec MPL2 for tracking. I used a lot of subtractive EQing. This helped a lot of my mixes and tied the vocals together since those resonant notches are what can ruin a mix.”
How much are you still using the modular these days?
“Not much at all! I’m very interested in the Kyma and Nord Modular at the current moment. Eurorack quality is missing something for me at the moment.”
How has quarantine and Covid times changed your working methods? Has it put things in perspective? And what do you have planned for when touring resumes?
“Yes! Right, it’s been a challenge we can all relate to. I think my biggest takeaway is that despite what’s going on around you, you can always make your immediate vicinity and surroundings a better place. It’s that choice in the moment. I also learned more self care and how to properly take breaks.”
What has been inspiring you to make music recently with no live shows? Do you feel inspiration come and go?
“I have thought a lot about that because I still love to make exciting music, club music, dance music. I think despite not having big parties to DJ or even attend, there will be a time when they come back. And, otherwise, people still want to hear this energy, even if it’s while we are all still at home.”
Cheetah Bend is out now. For more info, head to Jimmy Edgar’s SoundCloud profile.