When most listeners think of electronic music, the words "soft" or "melodic" don't typically come to mind - especially in the dub-step era. Helado Negro, the moniker for multi-instrumentalist Roberto Lange provides a welcome change. Curated by Wilco keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, the two produced a stunningly original song called "Mitad Del Mundo".
We first met curator Mikael Jorgensen in March 2012. He was slated to join Cat Martino and Sufjan Stevens for Cat's April 2012 Shaking Through session, though his busy schedule touring with Wilco prevented him making it. He promised he'd come back, and that was a promise kept, returning with Helado Negro's Roberto Lange.
Spanish for "The Middle Of The World", Helado Negro's "Mitad Del Mundo" was born out of Lange's childhood memories. "I feel like a lot of the songs that I have are almost like patch cables... like I'm patching in one end of a memory, and these non-chronological experiences come together to make up my lyrics."
Helado Negro is just one of many projects that Roberto Lange has been working on with other artists. In addition to work with people like Julianna Barwick, Bear In Heaven, and Prefuse 73 Lange is also a visual artist with a substantial resume which is how he met
Jorgensen. The chemistry of that friendship was immediate. "When I was listening to the Helado Negro records, I was like man, I would love to get into whatever some of this is." says Jorgensen. During their session, the two spent most of the day pushing and twisting nobs and dials on an impressive collection of their own gear and several synthesizers provided for the session by Moog Music.
"I can't think of anything that's more fun and gratifying than to have all this stuff set up, have everyone here working together, trying to make something cool that didn't exist two days ago," says Jorgensen.
As the day progressed, the layers of the song began to bend together effortlessly. Lange's whimsical Spanish flowed. Whatever problems presented seemed to resolve with a turn of a dial.We felt like we were on another planet. Perhaps it could have been the mitad del mundo…
“We were able to create this unique environment, and it's never going to happen in that same way. Even if we tried to replicate it.” ”
“A huge amount of my musical education was dissecting songs and finding small snippets - sampling short amounts of sound and turning it into something new by understanding how you can manipulate sound.”
“ This session pushed us to our limits, forcing us to adapt continuously to changing circumstances and an ever-evolving song. Using Ableton for the first time, the song didn't arrive so much as slowly materialize. The amount of discarded material was impressive and involved a lot of work to keep up with the creative energy of Mikael and Roberto. ”
Mikael and Roberto arrived late morning on a sunny day in September, Mikael’s car weighed down by hundreds of pounds of synthesizers. We eagerly carried in his vintage ARP 2600, an EMS SYNTHI and countless small valuables, like the Teenage Engineering OP1, a Critter & Guitari Pocket Piano (provided for this session), laptops, etc. In addition, a special delivery from Moog Music awaited them, including a Voyager, three Slim Fatty’s, a handful of MoogerFoogers, a pair of 500 series Ladder Filters, and pocket protectors for everyone!
Immediate Plan B
We expected the majority of the Helado Negro session to take place in the control room, and as such prepared the room with lighting and feng shui inspired by the Starship Enterprise. But when Mikael and Roberto surveyed the room, the sad realization was that it was simply too small for all the gear we had. A quick plan B had us vigorously rearranging Miner Street’s live room to accommodate. Every keyboard and noteworthy effects unit in the house were arranged in a giant “U” shape taking up the majority of the room’s 700 sq feet, linked by a vast network of MIDI cables.
As the two set up and eventually began to record, Jorgensen, with a child-like twinkle in his eye, offered his keen sensibilities to the project on a hundred different levels, problem solving being one of the many. “Being in the studio can be a really difficult position. Those ideas and those inspirations grow out the fertile nature of creating. I know for me at times I can get kind of snowed or frustrated … or “blocked” by my own ability. You hear a part but can't play it, or can't quite get it right.”
Engineer Jonathan Low recorded Mitad del Mundo using Ableton Live. It began with a scratch, rhythmless synth pad, vocal and acoustic guitar (all of which Roberto was extremely eager to do-away with as soon as possible). With Mikael’s recording of the Moog bass line, parts began to stick.
The majority of the day was an interesting volley of trial and error instrumentation. As sections of the song repeated infinitely, parts were auditioned, tweaked, discarded, re-approached and the lucky few became permanent fixtures to the song. By sunset, acoustic instruments started being added to the dabble. Mikael played a malleted bass drum and snare drum, captured by a distant Neumann U67 room mic into the A-Designs Pacifica and Universal Audio LA2A. An hour or two later, Mikael and Roberto masterminded inclusion of Miner Street’s Tack Piano, using a Telefunken Ela M260, the Pacifica and a vintage DBX 162, shortly followed by a Vibraphone track (Ela M260 + DW Fearn VT-2 + DBX 162).
The vibe was set for vocals initially by having Roberto sing into a Shure SM-58, routed through the ARP 2600 for a driven, spacey “envelope” effect. Eventually engineer Jon Low set up The Neumann U67 through the DW Fearn and Universal Audio LA2A for final lead and backing vocals.
It’s interesting to note that the song in its most basic form was captured very early in the process, but as the day progressed, the “window dressing” continuously evolved. Electronic music at its core is different from conventional band tracking in this very fundamental way. A band will set up and knock out the instrumental elements one by one until their song is ultimately complete. In this process a song can be in a constant state of evolution, for which Abelton is specifically suited.
For Mixing, Jon, Mikael and Roberto decided to transfer all final tracks to ProTools. Tracks were routed through Miner Street’s vintage 400 series MCI, with a vintage Compex 760, Manley Massive Passive, and DW Fearn VT-7 compressor on the L / R mix bus. Additionally, Jon padded the VT-7 outs to allow the A-Designs Pacifica and a pair of vintage RCA BA-31s to be inserted for make up gain before the Otari MX-5050 ¼ inch two track.
On drums, both electronic and acoustic, Jon used healthy doses of effects from a vintage Yamaha Rev 7 (donated to the session by The War on Drugs’ Adam Granduciel). For vocals and several other sonic elements of the mix, Jon used the various MoogerFooger pedals supplied by Moog, ultimately leading to a pair of Fender amps with the reverbs set on high in the live room. Ultimately, this is how the mix eventually sounds as large and surreal as it does, as swirling, heavily chorused and flanged signals are reverberated along-side the original sounds.
Roberto Carlos Lange
Director of Photography