Watch & Learn: The Making of Pretty Lights’ Album — A Colour Map of the Sun

What is this documentary about?

The Making of Pretty Light’s New Album: A Colour Map of the Sun is another treasure produced by Thump (also see last week’s Watch & Learn here). This documentary follows American electronic/hip-hop/soul producer Derek Vincent Smith, also known as Pretty Lights, for over two and a half years, as he puts this album together.

What stood out in this documentary?

This is quite an uncanny documentary that shows how one can create the illusion of sampling in their music without going through the usual process. As opposed to previous albums by Pretty Lights, for which he digitally sampled hundreds of records, every single sample used in this album has actually been created by him, from scratch.

He travelled and worked in studios in Brooklyn and New Orleans to create the album of a lifetime that would encompass countless genres and music eras, using hardware that existed forty years ago alongside a modern production style. Pretty Lights worked with blues singers individually. Later, with an engineer, they would together craft the sound to imitate a certain time period and genre.

This comfortably long documentary was both enjoyable and educative. The whole documentary will make you, as a viewer, tap your foot in tune with the music and watch how the artist’s ‘less is more’ concept materializes. Here are three things we loved — and the top three reasons we think you should watch it.

Firstly, and we kid you not, the number and assortment of instruments that are used in this documentary will see you googling them for a good part of your day. Instruments like the trumpet-violin, the nyckelharpa, the resonator mandolin and the marxophone (we warned you!) feature in this documentary. The range of the vocals and solos are phenomenal, but what makes them all the more enticing is the way Pretty Lights directs the vocalists to sing. In one studio session, he is seen directing two female vocalists to “sing it like a mourning, pissed off, crazy old lady smoking, who is also crying and running away from zombies!”. As crazy as it sounds, they manage to pull it off.

Secondly, the brief feature on Pretty Lights making vinyl is highly relevant in the artist’s album-making process. The tapes containing studio-recorded music were placed on a lathe, which would then cut the music on to a record — this is particularly interesting, especially since vinyl-making has been overtaken today by the digitization of sound recordings.

Thirdly, and perhaps the most fascinating part of this documentary and album, is the challenge that Pretty Lights took upon himself, to not just create records for each sample, but to also use a purely analog modular synthesizer through which he would patch cables in order to find the right sounds.

All in all, this is a must-watch documentary, especially for all the sampling artists out there. It is a breath of fresh air that gives viewers a new perspective into the production of sampled music. Additionally, this release was nominated for the best electronica/dance album at the 2014 Grammys. Do give it a watch, and if Pretty Lights’ work appeals to you, you can also watch the infamous documentary Re:Generation, where he is featured alongside musicians like Mark Ronson and Skrillex.

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