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Skilled Mechanics Blend Organic Instruments With Studio Wizardry

It’s hard to pin which city Tricky is currently calling home as the Bristol, UK-bred artist flits his way from continent to continent every few years. For his latest endeavor, a fluid project called Skilled Mechanics, he enlists his drummer, Luke Harris, and his The Wild Bunch cohort, DJ Milo, and brings them to his current residence in Berlin, Germany. Here, Tricky has a home studio setup, and his engineer of seven years, Francois Kerjan, at the ready.

The self-titled album has a balanced combination of organic instruments and studio wizardry. It similarly uses both modern and classic outboard studio gear, mainly coming from DJ Milo, such as Akai S3000 and S950 samplers, Korg Triton, Yahama Motif, and an old version of Cubase. Milo sketches his ideas, which form the textures for the songs. For all the input it has, Skilled Mechanics remains spare and select in its sounds with plenty of space between its elements.

Stemming from a dub/reggae setting inherent to Bristol, the bottom end of all Tricky’s output is strong. For Skilled Mechanics, this aspect is brought even more to the forefront. Kerjan attributes this partly to his approach toward compression, which is calculated to leave air in the vocals, bass kicks, and snares.

“There’s nothing I dislike more than over-compressed pop vocals where all the emotion is taken away by a huge 20 dB gain reduction,” say Kerjan. “That wouldn’t match Tricky’s songs, which need to stay intimate. I used two Don Classics U76, which I love for kicks and snare, with slow attack and fast release to create a bit of light distortion and a gentler Urei Blackface 1176LN Rev F for vocals. JLM Audio LA500 for bass and SSL G series stereo comp for the master, mainly set to slow attack of 10ms and middle to slow release, 0.6s/1.2s/auto, and 2:1 ratio, with never more than three or four dB of compression.”

For the bottom end the slow attack/fast release is swapped for slow attack/slow release on the master bus compressor as well as the Tube-Tech PE1C set after the compressor. Says Kerjan, “[Tube-Tech’s] boost curve is way smoother than traditional EQ shelves. I almost always set it to 30 Hz and it affects the mix way above this frequency. The fact that is has been modeled with Fletcher Munson Curve makes it particular to and efficient for that task.”