At Focusrite, we're interested to see how members of the audio community adopt our equipment into their setups and when we found that Harry Yeff aka Reeps One was choosing to run his unique vocal arrangements through a Saffire Pro 24 DSP, we were very keen to find out more. Harry has become one of the world's best vocal performers – racking up millions of views on the internet based on a exemplary mastery of his vocal chords. We sat down with Harry and his sound engineer, Linden, to discuss why sound quality matters to him and his art, and how he uses Focusrite in what he does.
How and when did you two team up?
We met around 4 years ago at one of Reeps’ shows and talked for a while about how as a drummer I’d always been interested in beatboxing and when I couldn’t play drums I’d always vocalise my beats. Soon after, we met up a few times and had some drums/beatbox jam sessions and listened to lots of different music together. It took a while before we really started getting into the production side of things.
Most beatboxers don’t have an engineer as a contracted part of the show - why has this become so important to you?
I need to make sure I don’t rant here, but for anyone doing anything similar to what I’m doing let me tell you now: YOU NEED AN ENGINEER. Many in-house engineers can’t get their head around what I do and will often consider me as a singer/rapper, EQing my voice in the wrong way and putting a low cut on the channel. I realised I could be doing the best performance of my life and that if the process between me and the speakers/audiences ears was not considered, it could mean my efforts were wasted.
That was the first step but then it went a step further - I realised that if the engineer knows what is going to happen in the show, he could move with it and bring out the best of each section and that's when we developed the setup we have today. It makes my sets more sonically dynamic. So when I do one hour shows before or after DJs playing the most high energy, fully produced and mastered tracks that get everyone dancing, my solo vocal gets as good a reaction, if not a more positive one.
What makes it such a challenge to record Reeps?
We’re faced with a challenge of achieving a wide spectrum of sound, from as low as 30Hz up to 20kHz, from a single mic channel. Unlike recording a drummer, where you can use various mics that have been designed specifically for different frequency ranges i.e. kick, snare, tom mics etc., we can't separate sounds using different mics as all the sound comes from one source: Reeps’ mouth! A lot of the clarity comes in the mixdown process from EQ automation, but I can’t stress how important it is to have the best sound possible before the mix. This comes from the room as well as microphone choice and placement.
How has your setup developed from when you started working together?
I went to a lot of Harry's shows before I started engineering for him and I started to really understand what he wanted. When we first started doing shows, I would just use the in-house mixing consoles, compressors etc., but for the last year and a half I’ve been running Harry through Ableton Live and using lots of built-in Ableton plug-ins as well as third party plug-ins. Every single show we do, the sound gets more refined and I find more efficient plug-ins for the sound I’m looking for. I use a Focusrite Saffire Pro 24 DSP as a live audio interface and it’s never failed on me! We’ve been using a few different pre-amps for the live show but at the moment we’re using the Focusrite ISA One... It’s got a nice bite to it!
In a nutshell how do you two work together in a live show?
I’ll be at the front-of-house so I can hear exactly what’s going on out front. During soundcheck, I get Harry to go through a few of his sounds, starting with simple sounds like a kick drum and a few different types of snare drum in his vocabulary. I’ll have a large amount of parametric EQs open on Ableton and slowly I’ll ring out all unwanted frequencies. We’ll then move on to check his bass sounds to make sure they’re all kicking and hitting the right spots in the room (if your feet aren’t shaking they're not EQ’d correctly!). I’ll always ask how the sound feels for Harry. So he feels comfortable on stage, and to make sure he has a broad frequency and dynamic range. Often I’ll have a bit of experimenting time in the soundcheck and this is when I can refine the live setting and try out different stuff.
During the show, I’m constantly ‘playing the sound’ while Harry's performing. I use a few different MIDI controllers (such as the Novation ZeRo SL MkII) and I have different controls assigned to different parameters to bring out the best in each of Reeps’ sounds.
Throughout the show I’m controlling EQ, compression, different kinds of drive, sub bass enhancers, reverbs, stereo field stuff, and more - there’s a lot of stuff going on!
With all this technical stuff and processing going on, often people don’t understand what I’m doing – they see me on a laptop, hitting all these buttons and think that I’m adding samples to the show. Essentially, what I’m doing is simply making up for what’s lost when Reeps beatboxes through a microphone. I process his voice in my style so it’s loud, clear and powerful enough to compete with all these bass music producers playing mastered tracks!
What makes you different to most solo beatboxers out there?
Well I think one thing is I don’t think about the word beatbox anymore. In fact I kind of hate it.What I mean by that is I try to think about my music for the sound of it, not how I do it. There will always be an element of surprise to the way I can make sounds but many beatboxers hide behind party tricks and the fact people like it because they cannot do it, rather than focusing on whether is sounds good. My goal is for people to listen to my voice and tracks like any other music and enjoy it for what it is and not how it’s done. To do this I need to think about every element around me as an artist and the production of the show. Quality and communication is paramount to me.
How does a studio Reeps recording setup differ from a live show?
The main difference is that in the studio you can use multiple mics. Each session we do, we have a slightly different recording setup depending on what we want to capture. What Reeps does is so unique and there isn’t a single mic that has been designed to capture his range. We’ve experimented a lot with mic techniques and I use different mics to capture what they do best. I’ll do things like put a bass drum mic on Harry’s chest and have a stereo pair of condenser overheads set up about a metre in front of him to capture some space and give the recording stereo field. Then in the mixdown/master process I automate volume, compression, low cuts, EQ boosts, reverbs, sub enhancers etc., throughout the recording to enhance Harry’s original idea and bring out what’s lost in the recording process. In person, Reeps’ beatboxing sounds unbelievable - I’m on a mission to replicate this sound in the studio!
What are you up to next?
The Reeps One umbrella is growing fast. In 2013, collaborations with Beardyman, The Skints and Foreign Beggars will be up on the Reeps One Youtube channel. We've already booked shows at Glastonbury, Venezuela, France, Cyprus and across the UK. Another more personal project to look out for is our sit-down theatre show, which I'm co-directing with theatre production master Shlomo - that will run at Battersea Arts Centre and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. There's loads more too - so make sure keep up to date at www.reepsone.co.uk