Mark Ronson is currently one of England’s biggest music exports, having won an English Brit Award and being a three-time Grammy award winning music producer and artist .
His second album, Version focused on the British music scene, with covers of songs by the likes of Radiohead, Maxïmo Park, The Smiths, The Zutons and Kaiser Chiefs. The album includes three top ten hits and won Ronson a BRIT Award for Best Male Artist 2008. He is the first person to win a BRIT award who does not sing on the actual recording.
Ronson’s heritage comes from being a superstar Dj seemingly to some of the music/fashion industries biggest names, P Diddy and Tommy Hilfiger to name a few.
To be more exact, it’s been about six months since Ronson has spun in Manhattan — the borough that made him famous for his selector skills. But one fulfilling evening doesn’t override his feeling of burnout. “I don’t enjoy [DJing] five nights a week — playing new hip-hop and stuff — because it doesn’t really get me that excited anymore,” he laments.
Some 14 years in the booth can do that to you. Ronson still gets his fill by spinning recent hip-hop hits, electro, rock and remixes of his own records — primarily at the renowned YOYO parties in London and for his weekly Internet show “Authentic Shit” on East Village Radio. Those couple gigs aside, he’s no longer keen on being the celebrity DJ that he became in the late-’90s by entertaining the rich and famous. As fun as it was rocking parties for Tommy Hilfiger and Diddy, it wasn’t enough creatively.
By 2000, Ronson found a new outlet with a piece of equipment he was already familiar with as a hip-hop head: the MPC. His first notable production work was heard on vocalist Nikka Costa’s album, Everybody Got Their Something (Virgin, 2001), and two years later on his solo debut, Here Comes the Fuzz (Elektra, 2003). This anything-goes party album featured everyone from Sean Paul to Saigon and saw Ronson translate his kinetic turntable magic onto wax.
Since cutting back on spinning in clubs in early 2006, Ronson has never been busier on the production front. Christina Aguilera, Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse have all reached out to Ronson recently for his soulful backdrops. Ronson has also produced Liverpool’s own Candie Payne’s “One More Chance (Ronson mix)” in 2007.
During a little downtime from his work for others, the producer recorded his surprising new sophomore album, “Version” (Allido/RCA, 2007) — a record that was never supposed to happen.
The album was been well received by critics. In May 2007 it was awarded the title Album of the Month by the British dance music magazine Mixmag. On June 23, the DJ made the cover of the Guardian newspaper’s Guide magazine, alongside the singer Lily Allen.
In June 2007, Ronson signed DC hip hop artist Wale to Allido Records. In late 2007, he focused on production, working with Daniel Merriweather on his debut album, and recording again with Amy Winehouse and Robbie Williams.
Mark is the epitome of a modern day DJ who has advanced into the production realm. His work for other artists and producing covers’ is arguably what he is now most known for.
Ronson has only one request regarding working conditions when making music here: “It just has to be quiet in the studio,” he says humbly. That’s not much to ask, and as you’ll soon find out, Ronson is rather easy to work with.
But before he welcomes others into the studio, this soul purveyor sits at his Akai MPC3000 LE developing drum patterns. While the drums were the first instrument Ronson picked up as a kid, he admits to not being able to play them all that well. Thus he prefers recording the MPC pads to develop a track and then adds live percussion later. “The beats all come from the MPC, and then depending on what I think the song should start with — a keyboard, the guitar, a bass line — that determines what I should put on top,” he explains. “I just find a beat that I like on the MPC and then lay it into Pro Tools and then just add all the live instrumentation on top of that.”
Sticking to his old-school sensibilities, Ronson often draws from his collection of vintage keys: a Roland RS-101 Strings synth, a Wurlitzer electric piano, a Hohner Clavinet D6 and Yamaha grand piano, to name a few. “The only new thing that I use is a Nord Electro because I don’t have a hammer board, and it has a pretty good sound.”
Even with vocals, Ronson likes to take it back as heard on “Valerie” with Amy Winehouse. Here, using an old RCA DX77 ribbon mic through a Neve mic pre, the soul singer’s Motown-esque tone simply pops.
Soon after recording a handful of tracks with the aforementioned gear, Columbia UK picked up his new album (via Allido), and all of a sudden, there was a budget. With the dough came a world of possibilities. After working with funk/soul band The Dap-Kings on Winehouse’s Back to Black [Republic, 2007] album, Ronson called upon the horn players from the Brooklyn group to help blow out the covers on Version. He also hired large string sections — a move he never thought he could pull off.
“After working on Amy Winehouse’s record, that was sort of my first experience producing and arranging by myself in front of a band and going in front of a string section — something that maybe I would have been a little bit intimated to do before. So once I had the learning block of getting over that working on Amy’s record, that’s when I was able to have the confidence, and that’s when we brought that into my own record.”
Ronson worked with Tom Elmhirst, who mixed a quarter of the tracks on “Version” having already mixed Back to Black (Winehouse), Elmhirst was already familiar with Ronson’s robust funk/soul sound that relied so much on horns and big-band arrangements. “[Version] was very much a continuation of what we’d done on Amy’s record, which was that thing of having people play but make it sound contemporary as well,” Elmhirst explains. “On the mix side, I was really keen for it to kick. So a lot of times with The Dap-Kings, I’d be blowing up the sounds to make them heavier with samples to make it kick as well.”
As a veteran who’s worked with Moby, Bush, Goldfrapp and dozens of others, Elmhirst takes a purist’s approach to mixing. Working behind a Neve VR72, he likes the physical aspect of the console. “I enjoy the mixing side of it rather than just pushing a mouse up and down the whole time,” he says. “But it’s pretty conventional — Pro Tools|HD, and I managed to get it all out of 48 outputs.”
With his love of reggae, Elmhirst used acquired techniques to slip in a little Caribbean flavor on Version. “On a lot of the horns I’ll put a delay on them, but what you have to do with horns sometimes so they can come through clean and [with] that old, almost Motown sound — sometimes you need to distress them a bit so it’s extremely broad frequency-wise,” Elmhirst explains. “So I’ll put shelves on them, I’ll put Lo-Fi on them — anything to sort of crunch ‘em up and put ‘em into place. And the way the [horns] were tracked, they weren’t played individually — they were played as a group, so you’ve got a nice blend.”
Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Apple Mac G5
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD system
Studer 16-track tape machine
Synths, software, plug-ins, instruments, amps
Ampeg Jet guitar amp
Clavia Nord Electro organ/piano
Crumar Roady electric piano
Digidesign ChannelStrip, Lo-Fi plug-ins
DW drum kit
Fender Jazz Bass, Rhodes electric piano, Twin guitar amp
Gibson Les Paul guitar, acoustic guitar
Hohner Clavinet D6
Line 6 Amp Farm plug-in
Rhodes Mark I Stage Piano
Roland A-90 Controller, RS-101 Strings
Wurlitzer electric piano
Yamaha grand piano
Mic, mic preamps, EQs, compressor
(2) Avalon Vt-737sp preamp/ compressor/EQ
Brent Averill 1073 preamp
Manley Reference Gold mic, VoxBox compressor/de-esser/EQ
RCA DX77 mic
Universal Audio 1176 preamp