"The SP is More Like My Sketching Tool": DJ Manipulator Breaks Down 'The Synth Tape'

From early Jean Michel Jarre and Synergy influences to his multifaceted production process, the Worcester, MA DJ/producer dissects his memorable concept album.

Growing up in Hempstead, Long Island, DJ Manipulator often heard jazz, merengue, and reggae eminanting from his family’s stereo system. Over the years he took note of his dad’s willingness to purchase music based on a random whim or an intriguing album cover, a technique that later turned into a critical part of his own crate digging excursions. “When I first started, I didn't really know what I was doing,” he says. “So if I saw some wild shit on the cover, I was gonna pick it up and try to do something.”

Once his father provided the initial foundation for his musical tastes, Manipulator’s brother introduced him to rap. By the time he relocated from Hempstead to Worcester, MA in the late ‘90s, the DJ/producer started to pay close attention to sample sources—leading to the eventual discovery of electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk.

After graduating high school he developed a particular fascination with Trans-Euro Express, Jean Michel Jarre’s Oxygène, and Synergy’s Cords. For Manipulator, part of the appeal of these classic, analog synth-heavy albums was both the novel sound and the unique process behind the music. “It wasn't like someone playing the drums or piano or whatever,” he says. “Some of these instruments are just someone turning knobs.”

Armed with a better understanding of rap production and sample sources, he picked up his first set of turntables in 2002 and a Roland SP-303 in 2003. He admits to rushing into 303 beats while tossing the manual to the side after listening to Madlib and MF DOOM’s classic Madvillainy, a decision that lead to some subpar initial output.

Regardless of the dissatisfaction he felt with his early work, Manipulator stayed the course and continued to work on his craft. In addition to dropping his debut Dusted The F#​%​k Out Vol. 1, the instrumental mega-mix 15 Minutes Of Madness!, and the Zilla Rocca-assisted single “Nobody's Safe From Crime” in 2012, he also continued to study synthesizer use in recorded music—with a particular focus on albums that utilized the ARP 2600 and classic Moog synths. Five years after putting out his first release he started working on a synth-based concept album of his own.

From the very first beat he laid down for The Synth Tape, Manipulator thought of the project as one singular unit that had to flow effortlessly from track to track. Pointing to the 2002 album Blazing Arrow as a particular inspiration, he notes how Blackalicious was able to make a cohesive LP that maintained a theme without sacrificing the quality of the music.

He also studied how the group used a sample of the word “arrow” to weave a common thread throughout their record. For The Synth Tape, Manipulator scoured the depths of YouTube to extract samples from instructional synth videos that could achieve the same function. He uses these vocal samples for a clever dual purpose, both to maintain the synthe-centric theme and to form his own thoughtful commentary on the relationship between artists and technology. As one sampled voice tells the listener towards the end of “Roland,” “There is more to the art of sound design than tweaking parameters of your favorite preset or twisting knobs.”

Despite the amount of work involved in finding all the various vocal tibets throughout the project, this process never felt tedious or dull. “I have good memories of making the beats and picking which vocal samples are going to go in between the songs,” he says.

To compose The Synth Tape instrumentals, Manipulator used a blend of live playing and sampling—about 20% of the sounds came from his microKORG or various VSTs, while the remaining 80% were sourced from vinyl. As part of his overall production process, he typically focuses on giving each and every sound the desired texture before he starts chopping his samples—a technique that proved critical on this album. “Anytime I sample a record, I run my samples the SP [404] first, just so I can either get that SP texture or experiment with affects,” he says.

The 404 also played a vital role when samples weren’t being used. “I can put my microKORG through my SP too,” he says. “Maybe I'll hit a chord and then try to mess with effects just to make it sound unique. I did that a lot on The Synth Tape actually.”

After using the SP-404 effects and filters to hit just the right notes, he incorporated other DAWs and samplers to bring his concept album to fruition. Editing and constructing each beat in Maschine, Manipulator eventually exported the song stems to Logic for mixing purposes. Then it was back to the 404 for some added accents effects. “I'd say the SP is more like my sketching tool,” he says.

Cutting and scratching also played as much a part of the production process as samples and synths. Expertly placed scratches are an key element on the flawlessly layered “Circuit Breaker,” the floaty follow-up “What The Fuzz,” and the remainder of the record.

Regardless of what technology and samples he used to create the final product, The Synth Tape flows seamlessly from beginning to end, just as intended. It makes a very compelling listen, whether it’s a casual one or an in-depth study of Manipulator’s technique and storytelling through sampling. With clever nods to his synth favorites, like the scratch heavy, haunting “Arp,” or the understated but equally powerful “Jarre,” this instrumental album is not to be missed.

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