Stories from a Pro: Morgan Page

The GRAMMY and International Dance Music Award nominee shares his journey from bootleg re-mixer to award-winning producer and world-renowned DJ.

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The GRAMMY and International Dance Music Award nominee shares his journey from bootleg re-mixer to award-winning producer and world-renowned DJ. Having long jettisoned his status as an up-and-comer, Page now securely sits among the ranks of the world’s most established electronic musicians.

How did your time in Boston affect your vision as a producer and DJ?

My time in Boston was really important. I did DJ a ton in Boston. It was fun to be a part of the music scene there and I worked really hard. The first club I played was Phoenix Landing. It was a Wednesday night and I brought out an MPC2000 and this old EMU sampler. You know, 75 lbs worth of gear. There's nothing like that first time you play, when you hear that kick drum you've been tuning all day that's just super loud in the club. It sounded completely different from what I was used to hearing at home. I had a studio in my dorm-room at Emerson College. I was living in triple occupancy for two years – so I had racks and racks of equipment right next to 3 beds, and would always have to do everything on headphones. The ultimate test was bringing them to the radio station, WERS, and hearing what it sounded like crunched through the broadcast compressors. That was always a shock, thinking, 'I didn't put that much reverb on there!'

Your music sounds like a blend of everything from rock, country, to pop influences. How does a track start to take shape— is it your taste in music or is it the vocalist that helps shape it?

I like to borrow a lot from different genres. I get tired of the same old sound. It's funny, there's always the hot sound of the moment. I try to be really inspired by music I don't like in addition to music that I do. It makes you really motivated to want to top that, like "I can do better than this." On "The Longest Road" I think there were slide guitars which gave it that feel of a country influence, but just because it has the guitar doesn't mean it's necessarily country... I also typically choose vocalists that I want to work with that don't sound like your typical pretty dance vocalist, so the lyrical content and timbre of the voice is different and I try to surround them with instruments that make sense.

I like to borrow a lot from different genres. I get tired of the same old sound. It's funny, you know, there's always the hot sound of the moment. I also try to be really inspired by music I don't like in addition to music that I do. It makes you really motivated to want to top that, like "I can do better than this."

Your music really seems to avoid those common musical devices. How do you avoid gimmicks that are popular in the moment?

All of that stuff has a sort of sizzle that I think is great for a while, but how many times do you want to hear it? I think a good way to judge how good a song or radio edit ‘ism,’ is to ask: "How many times do I want to hear this again?" One listen shouldn’t be enough to be completely satisfied – you should be at best, addicted. The sizzle is great, but if you want to make records that last a long time, I think the song is the most important thing.

What do you listen to when you're not thinking about house music?

A lot of stuff. A lot of indie bands. Everything from your typical electronic stuff like Daft Punk to more indie bands like Florence the Machine. I really like the umbrella of electronica music from Royksopp all the way down to the purist underground things. But, that's the hardest question to answer really, because every week it's something different. If you look at the playlist on my iPhone, it's just crazy. I think as a producer you really have to listen to a wide variety of stuff.

What are the key pieces of equipment in your studio setup?

Stuff comes and goes, but the core of it is Pro Tools. I use a lot of Ozone. I've used it on every single remix and original. Alloy has been on every track on the new album I'm working on. There are certain go-to plug-ins that you get used to using, and it's more about the workflow and how it works for you. I have a lot of analog keyboards. For me, it's nice to have that warmth and to not have to do a lot of processing. Analog keys just allow me to get the sounds I want without having to EQ or compress it that much. I'll just go in and side-chain it, and use some stock plug-ins for that but a big part of my process is using dynamic plug-ins.

Digging In: Examining "Fight For You," from the album Believe in Pro Tools.

What tools did you use for the lead vocal take of this song?

These days I'm putting a limiter on the main track and a brick-wall limiter to make sure nothing is peaking. Nothing drastic in terms of the threshold — it depends on the level of the track. What I like about Ozone is that you can kind of drive it hard and it doesn’t honk. You don't have any big jumps. It just sounds natural. I'll have a very subtle limiter on there, and a couple of compressors in-line. I use the limiter in Alloy-- which is killer. You can use just the limiter creatively and do some incredible things with it. If it's just vocals, I'll typically cut out things below around 80Hz. I used to be really into doing serious filtering, but there's something you lose when you leave that low-end in the vocal. There’s something about the presence that you need in those lower frequencies. It's really important to cut out the low end in a lot of the vocals, and in the backgrounds, cut out a lot of the highs. In the digital world it's so easy to hear highs, so it's really important to roll them off around 8kHz on other voices and instruments so the lead vocals can really shine. That can make an enormous difference.

"I use a lot of Ozone. I've used it on every single remix and original. Alloy has been on every track on the new album I'm working on."

Before Alloy, a lot of Pro Tools users would use Ozone on multiple busses and realized that everything was being thrown out of sync. Alloy’s zero latency mode fixes that. Has latency affected your workflow?

In Pro Tools LE, for example, without TDM, latency is a big issue, especially when it comes to processing vocals. Auto-Tune especially adds a ton of delay, so I have to nudge all of my other tracks over just a bit, which is really annoying. One big thing I've been doing now to speed up the workflow is to have markers for "verse," "chorus," "verse," "bridge," at the top in all my sessions. So, in my session template I'll put plug-ins like Alloy on there so that I don't have to keep dialing them up every time and change the whole structure of how it's going to be mixed. I know immediately that it's not going to clip because of the subtle limiter on there. That's on every track of every session now, and it just speeds things along. It used to take me 3 weeks to do a remix and now it takes about 3 days. That's also after having done 120 remixes — so that helps too.

Tell us a little bit about the drums in this session.

I used Stylus to create the drums and processed them with Ozone. I had a live drummer come in and real drums do add a nice little organic quality in the background. I'll start it with just getting a good kick. I'm layering drums less than I used to. I used to layer the kick drums, using 3 or 4, just carving them out. It's a crazy way to work and it's just a different sound. I like to use purer sounds now. So often I will just build the kick drum sound from scratch. I'll start with just a sine wave, add some white noise, really getting down to the harmonics in it.

Were you thinking about the frequencies you wanted to hit with your kick drum and snare while recording the song?

I like to have the curve of the overall mix and of the drums be a nice transition, making sure that every frequency is covered. If there are problem frequencies, I'll just nudge those out and sometimes I'll add in frequencies to keep that whole range. A lot of times I'll start the kick drum focusing on the fundamental and I'll add a sine wave to add a little more impact, a little more "oomph" to it. For the kick drum, it's been all about using a signal generator to generate a bunch of different octaves off of that fundamental, using those to reinforce that sound as a sweetener.

So you're really thinking about the key of the song when designing your kick sounds?

Absolutely. It's a whole way of thinking that you don't see with a lot of companies and a lot of plug-ins: thinking about things in musical terms. Sure thinking about things in frequencies but essentially, you're dealing with notes and the ranges of all of those notes and harmonics. That's something that's really nice about Alloy and Ozone; you can see what octaves and pitches you are dealing with.

Do you mix as you go or wait until it’s finished, pull the faders down, and start fresh?

I have to do it as I go. I work on drafts, spending maybe a day and a half to get a draft sounding good. You don't want to get it too polished though since you have to come back later to finish the song and redo things.

So do you turn a switch at some point and say, "Okay, now I'm in mixing mode"?

It's always piece-by-piece as I go, but when I’m at the end on a deadline and think "this doesn't sound great," I have to go into problem solving mode. With Ozone I'll do "test masters." I like to have them loud and impressive for the labels, especially if it's a major label that just wants to hear crunch. Lately the way I've been working is starting with a limiter on the whole mix rather than bringing that in at the last minute. I think it's a lot harder to make those changes at the end. Before, I would just do the whole track and slap on Ozone at the end, but now its part of the whole processes starting a few hours into it, which has helped a lot with how the mixes have translated into the clubs and radio.

When you’re finishes, do you leave any limiting on the full mix or do you let the mastering engineer do that?

I let them take care of it. I leave a compressor on now because I've seen mastering guys do amazing things with my mixes and I've seen them ruin mixes completely. It's very frustrating because you're paying them good money. Especially when you're doing remixes, you don't know where it's going to go to be mastered. I've done mixes for every one of these major labels and it's a different mastering guy almost every time. I used to leave too much flexibility in the mix, so now I compress it just a few dBs without the limiter.

For a long time it was frowned upon to master tracks yourself, but there are a lot of people in your position who now say that if they have a good listening environment and know how the final product should sound, why wouldn’t they?

As long as you have been doing it long enough and your ears are attuned to hear any issues, go for it. It really depends on the destination too. I think if it's club stuff, it's a little easier to master on your own. It depends on if you're on the road enough to really road test it, but it's changed. The software has gotten so much better and speakers have gotten better too. Trust your instincts and make spectral comparisons to other artists' tracks. There's also a feature in Ozone to fit the EQ of another curve.

How do you use Ozone to get your tracks ready for the club?

Now that I'm starting to mix with the limiter on, I'll use the loudness maximizer. I'll just have a little limiting going into it, making sure nothing's peaking, and I have a dither down in Ozone. I don't have Pro Tools doing the dithering. For mastering, I'll keep it at 24-bit, but for listening purposes like a low-res mp3, I'll bounce it down to 16-bit, convert it, and send it over to the label.

What else can you do to really polish off a track?

For a little bit of edge, I'll throw in some harmonic excitement. I'll EQ problem frequencies, so if there's some low-end rumble overall I want to just shovel out, I can do that. I don't use the compressor here very much. I use the stereo imaging to widen it just a little bit. So, I'll widen the top, a little in the middle, and then bring in the bass so it's a little more centered. That can be a real problem with mixes, especially in club stuff, if the bass is too wide. For reproducing the right sound consistently, I like to have a fairly centered bass sound, where both the kick and the bass line are interacting in that space…There are no hard and fast rules. I used to think that there were these absolute rules, like "never do this," or "never have this panned this way." It's up to you.

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