A couple of months ago, when I last played in Brighton, I was talking to Paul Budd, the promoter (and DJ Pablo Contraband), about how things were going with his Unity Agency (a man of many fingers in pies is Paul / Pablo). He was really excited about just having added The Reflex as the latest addition to an increasingly impressive roster that also includes the likes of Late Nite Tuff Guy, Rayko, Social Disco Club and Fingerman. The Reflex is London based French DJ / Producer, Nicolas Laugier, and it wasn’t just his work that impressed Paul, but his overall persona. Paul told me;
‘”Before we officially signed The Reflex to the Unity roster, Nicolas was keen that we should meet up to discuss goals and strategy whilst getting to know one another better, so we had an afternoon in Brighton which was absolutely key to me understanding what I was dealing with in terms of talent and commitment. For the first time I got a real insight into how much Nicolas had invested in The Reflex in terms of time and effort, his story regarding volunteering as an unpaid studio assistant to learn more skills and techniques each day, finding his own studio space, then often sleeping in his studio a few nights a week when working on something – it was quickly apparent that this guy was the real deal. His attention to detail and general enthusiasm for what I regard as an art form were great to see and in turn motivated me. I could hear this more clearly in his work after having met him. Really glad we chose to have that meeting as his professionalism and energy were really inspiring for me and could never have been properly translated via email and phone.”
The Reflex has recently come to prominence in underground dance circles via his ‘Reflex Revisions’, which are basically remixes as they used to be back in the day (expect, of course, that they’re unofficial), when the remixer worked purely from the original parts, reinterpreting what was recorded on the multitrack, rather than replacing stuff wholesale, or even changing everything so that the original only remains in name, as became the case later down the line when record companies saw the possibility of selling, let’s say, a Techno track to a Hip Hop audience. Nowadays it’s the norm for a variety of mixes in different genre styles to be commissioned, in order to maximise club exposure, but in earlier times there’d generally be the one remix of a track, often with a more dubbed out / instrumental alternative, but very much recognisable as the original recording from a different angle.
All the great remixers of this bygone era worked in this way – Tom Moulton, Walter Gibbons, François Kevorkian, Larry Levan, Tee Scott, Shep Pettibone, ‘Jellybean’ Benitez etc. This is the philosophy I’ve always tried to maintain myself, and rather than attempting to push square pegs into a round holes by working with tracks I’m not personally into (as many remixers do, wholesale changes enabling them to make it into something it never was intended to be the first place), I’ll only take on a job if the track appeals to me, which means that elements of the original are always going to be to the fore. In its purest form, remixing, as the word itself states, is reworking a recording that exists, but the lines became blurred between remix and remake, so that now it just means a different version, regardless of whether it only uses the original parts or doesn’t use any at all (my own remixes are built around the original, but generally with new elements introduced to make the track suit the type of gigs I play).
With this in mind it was fascinating to learn that when Nicolas does his ‘Revisions’ he only uses the original parts. He acquires the stems (each of the original multitrack tape channels) of an older, pre-digital, recording, and rebuilds it in his own way, contemporising it for DJs now. As with most of the re-edits these days, he quantizes these revisions / remixes (digitally manipulating them into strict time) so they’re DJ friendly (enabling DJs to mix in and out) – in short, making records that weren’t designed to be mixed mixable. I was already massively into his work, a number of his revisions huge for me, but when Paul Budd told me that Nicolas prided himself on adding no extra ingredients, I was all the more impressed. When I play his version of The Jackson 5’s ‘ABC’ I’m in awe at the sound coming out of the speakers, for I fondly remember this track from when it was released, 43 years ago, sandwiched in between 2 further J5 classics, ‘I Want You Back’ and ‘The Love You Save’ (all 3, their first singles, topping the US chart, and going Top 10 UK). What The Reflex has managed to do is bridge a couple of generations and make a track with ’60s production values sound like it belongs here and now, and without adding any other sounds, other than those that were on the original multitrack – a quite remarkable feat really.
It’s clear to me that he has a mage like mastery over his studio set up, and whilst he doesn’t want to add any other instrumentation, he’s making full use of the technology at his disposal in order to bring this antiquated recording (at least from a club perspective) bang up to date. He’s also nailing things from an arrangement side, and whilst some of his earlier stuff didn’t hang together quite right for me, he’s now significantly upped his strike rate, pulling off some remix masterstrokes in the process, the best-received of which has been another Michael Jackson track, this time without the other 4, his 1979 classic ‘Rock With You’, which The Reflex has transformed into a Disco symphony – with over 50,000 SoundCloud plays to date, this is by far and away his greatest success to date:
Things really began to take off for The Reflex when Gilles Peterson, a key figure in this story, played this new take on ‘Rock With You’ to a rapturous audience response on his BBC6 show back in February. The version Gilles played had Rod Temperton’s voice at the start (Temperton, the songs writer, had been captured on tape demonstrating how it went), and although this worked great for radio, where its quirkiness can be explained, it would have sounded a bit odd in a club – the context all wrong. Not to fear, The Reflex made a version available minus Temperton’s voice and all was well with the world, the track becoming a festival anthem this summer for me and many others, its glorious strings and keyboard opening sumptuously seductive.
Other personal favourite revisions include ‘I Wish’ (Stevie Wonder), which I had the pleasure of opening up with in Detroit earlier this year (http://blog.gregwilson.co.uk/2013/06/american-trilogy-motortown-philly-nyc-2/), ‘Got Me Burning’ (aka Ohio Players ‘Fire’) and ‘Give It Up Or Turn It Loose’ (aka James Brown’s ‘Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose’).
Where does he find the stems though? I emailed him for the lowdown and he told me; “Now I don’t really want to be the one who spills the beans ‘officially’, mainly because a lot of people don’t know where and why those stems are available. There’s already lots of guys on the case remixing the same stems, which makes my job a lot harder. I get asked all the time where I find my stuff when most of it is on the net – one just needs to find the websites.”
I got to know more about Nicolas and his background in a highly revealing exchange that says so much about his determination to make his mark. His journey began with an obsession for ’60s Mod culture, and that this was the reason he moved to London in the late ’90s, when he was 18 – to be in the city where the Modernists had first emerged 40 years earlier. It’s clear from this piece of information alone that The Reflex has come at things from a curve ball direction, his musical grounding more R&B, Soul and Funk than Hip Hop, House and Techno.
He found it a struggle to make ends meet in the city, but during more recent years, to supplement any odd jobs he could find, he managed to gain a foothold working as a DJ in bars, corporate events, even weddings, his wide-ranging taste in music standing him in good stead. Although this wasn’t what he had in mind when he’d decided he wanted to be a DJ, it provided a solid learning curve. He began, like so many other DJs, to put together his own basic edits and mash-ups to play out, and interested in studio techniques, and inspired by some of his remix heroes, like Tom Moulton, Larry Levan, John Morales and Walter Gibbons, he began to work at putting his own stuff together on his newly acquired computer, but never seemed to get anything finished, clogging up his hard drive with what he described as a load of ‘half-baked’ ideas.
Then, 3 years ago, he made a leap of faith, deciding to give his all, shit or bust, to becoming a full-time DJ / producer, and, most importantly, vowing to start finishing tracks and getting them out there. It was around this time he was listening to Gilles Peterson on the radio and heard him play a remix of Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ that Marc Rapson had done from the stems of the track (Rapson was previously the keyboard player in Ben Westbeech’s band, who were signed to Gilles’s Brownswood label). Nicolas takes it up;
“Of course I wondered who was this Marc Rapson guy and where did he find those multitracks? Well like I always say, Google is your best friend, and so I started working on the multis of (Marvin Gaye’s) ‘What’s Going On’ with the sole purpose of doing a mix for my own enjoyment. Around that time John Morales had started to release his mixes on BBE, Dimitri from Paris had been there all along but his Philly mixes really brought the whole thing to my attention, whilst Kon (Boston DJ revered for his re-edits / reworks) was being played by Gilles regularly”.
Nicolas set up his studio and remixed tracks like ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ (Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell) and ‘Heart Of Glass’ (Blondie), but it was with ‘ABC’, which took him 5 weeks to complete, that he first hit the bullseye;
“The ‘ABC’ mix was a bit of a cornerstone for me, as the new arrangement it took a rather cheesy classic to a whole different place, strictly done using the original parts and 100% mix friendly. I also rather enjoyed the surprise aspect of arranging, where you could slowly unveil a very famous track through a whole new structure and then the obvious bit would finally drop and you’d be like ‘wow I didn’t expect that kind of vibe”.
The Soundcloud community provided a vital link to the type of audience interested in re-edits / reworks, whilst it also enabled Nicolas to interact with like-minded producers including Dimitri, DJ Friction, Jay Negro, Kon and the Whiskey Barons, helping him gain further insight into this subculture of stem alchemy. I asked him how he’d got his name;
“The main trick for me was to make those mixes fully DJ friendly so they would be super tight for mixing, just as if you were mixing a modern record that was tempolocked. That’s how the name The Reflex came about, after all I was spending so much time ‘flexing’ those audio files so they would fit to the grid”.
In 2012, G.A.M.M., the Swedish label known for their re-edit releases, pressed up the first ‘Reflex Re-Visions’ 12”, and the series is now up to Vol 4 – these have featured remixes of tracks by The Jackson 5, James Brown, Amy Winehouse, Marvin Gaye, Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, Stevie Wonder, Blood Sweat & Tears and Ohio Players. He’s also seen his work issued on a few other other labels and, along with Gilles Peterson, has received crucial support on BBC6 from Craig Charles.
Having established a reputation for quality revisions of classic tunes, it’s clear that Nicolas’s star is in the ascendancy, and he’s now able to offer advice to those starting off on the same course;
“Over the years the multitracks business has become an integral part of the music industry with countless remix competitions, many labels giving away the stems for free or for sale. Personally I don’t do competitions anymore as they are just another way for labels to get lots of remixes for free. This may help your profile but then again, 99% of the time you never get any feedback and your tracks just get lost amongst thousands of others. Although remixing from multis involves a lot of audio editing (but also in my case a lot of chopping up and re-sequencing) most people call them ‘edits’. For me an ‘edit’ is done chopping up and extending / re-arranging a whole song, working from the multis is a ‘remix’. But to be honest I’ve given up on the terminology – most people call them ‘edits’ so it doesn’t matter anymore! I call my multitrack remixes ‘Revisions’ as that’s what it is really, a revised version of the original song using the sounds as raw material to create something new. Anything else I do called ‘edit’ or ‘rework’ isn’t done from the multis. I’ll stress that on many occasions people do not actually realize that all has been done using strictly the original sounds, often I’m being told that I added a kick here or a bass sound there. Technology today allows so many options in dealing with audio files that we are able to process them in a way that was unthinkable even 10 years ago. At the end of the day my ambition is to come up with an interesting take on classic (or not so classic) tracks tailored for the DJ world and putting to the fore some of the amazing grooves and instrumentation that sometimes got lost in the original songs because of the way they were mixed or arranged.”
Although he prefers to not to divulge where these stems can be found, I can personally reveal that, during recent times, as many people have already worked out for themselves, one of the main sources has been the unlikely area of gaming, particularly ‘Rock Band’ and ‘Guitar Hero’, where the record companies who license the original tracks break them down to between 4 and 12 stems on average, so that in the game one person can play drums, one bass, another guitar etc. Stems for some of the world’s most legendary artists are made available in this way. For example, here’s the Beatles track, ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (1967), a 4 track recording broken down to its individual stems:
These gaming stems are post-mix, which means that reverb and other FX have been added. To obtain the raw musical components, the pure recording as it went to tape, without any additional production treatment, you’d need to find those taken direct from the multitrack. With a global subculture of stem hunters now out there, gaining access to previously uncharted multi’s has become the holy grail – kudos on offer to those who are first out of the blocks in getting their hands on a new old track. With a limitless amount of possibilities out there, this is something that’s only going to get bigger, with producers like The Reflex now cast in the role of pioneers to this new generation of revisionists.
The Reflex – 5 Favourite Revisions By Others:
Linda Clifford ‘Runaway Love’ (Masters At Work)
Norma Jean ‘Saturday’ (Dimitri From Paris)
Pleasure ‘Joyous’ (Kon)
Brick ‘Dazz’ (Tom Moulton)
Jackie Moore ‘This Time Baby’ (John Morales)
History Of Multitrack Recording Wikipedia:
The Reflex Revisions On YouTube: