Tariq Khan: Catching the Vibe with VST Connect
by Markus Thiel
NYC-based producer Tariq Khan and his Recording Lounge and mixing studio at HighBreedMusic are an integral part of the Big Apple’s many-faceted music scene. Over the years he has worked with countless award-winning artists, releasing highly acclaimed records by various major record companies. His sixth sense for bringing the right people together has helped to further establish and celebrate a rich and creative community network involving artists like Butcher Brown, Cory Henry, and Kimbra. HighBreedMusic’s recordings convey a powerfully immersive vibe and fresh energy that most people would only expect to experience by attending a true New York City style live performance. We talked with Tariq about his philosophy of music production as well as new and efficient ways to approach studio work in the 21st century.
From what I’ve heard you’ve established a very unique recording style at your studio over the years. Can you tell us something about it?
Ha, sure. It all started in 2006 while I was producing a record with an artist in Cuba. She was a captivating vocalist when singing on stage in Havana, but I had never heard her in a recording situation. Through cultural exchange, I brought her to the studio in Canada that I was running at the time, but when she sang in the vocal booth, she actually wasn’t able to perform close to how she could sing live, which is actually a fairly common phenomenon. I found myself in a situation where I needed to finish a record with someone who couldn’t really sing in the studio, yet on the other hand, was unbelievably good on stage. Luckily, underneath my studio there happened to be an empty venue space and so I decided to drill a hole in the floor to pull all my needed recording cables through. I then isolated all instruments, such as putting the drum set in an enlarged plexiglass booth and routed everything to the recording room parallel with a PA monitor system facing away from the stage to reduce leakage. The result was a recording that sounded 95% like a studio session while having 150 people in the audience listening and watching her perform. She performed a mind-blowing concert, which resulted in a mind-blowing studio record, and the rest was history.
The next year, when I opened my studio in New York, I came to realize that no one else in the States had developed this exact recording technique, of which I’ve left out some crucial details for you to figure out (laughs). Much to my surprise, I’d inadvertently pioneered this specific isolated audio/live performance concept with the Cuban artist I mentioned, simply as a means to an end. This hyper-productive studio technique inspired me to build the “HighBreedMusic Recording Lounge” in Brooklyn, which has since become a great success and infamous within the local New York music culture. We curate live concert events that, in reality, are recording sessions, also supported by our own unique filming style video team led by Grammy-winning videographer Nikki Birch. This way we’re able to produce a true studio-sound record, and music video, with the live performance energy of a concert. It really works as its own methodology because artists simply come to play a show in front of an audience, yet the technique adds an unprecedented opportunity for the recorded material to exist as so much more than a live recording typically could. It’s not a complicated concept if you understand routing and the various pros and cons of different recording options, but nobody else was doing it, so we branded the technique as the Recording Lounge style of making records. Since then, so many great artists have participated in our exclusive recording events.
Listening to some of your recordings I can confirm that the live energy is really cutting through!
We take special care that the vibe in the studio is really good by curating an audience of up to 60 people by invite only. Usually, we can expect about half of the audience to consist of established professional musicians and the other half to be industry professionals and tastemaker/music lovers. Essentially, artists and musicians are performing in front of their friends, colleagues and peers, the people that they’d like to impress, along with people that make them feel at home. This results in really good energy in the room because they are performing in front of whom we’d hopefully consider to be the ideal intimate audience. Our platform is essentially an artistic hub where gifted music minds get together to collaborate on records, in concerts, and in some very memorable invite-only jam session parties — a true community project. Of course, my main work outside of this is producing records. I did the Slingbaum project in 2020, for example, a collaboration of 35+ performers featuring artists like Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, FKA Twigs, and Damon Albarn from the Gorillaz, with me taking care of producing, recording and mixing. People from all several different genres took part in this project, which was famously only released on Vinyl.
What do you rely on as a main setup at your studio?
I produce everything within Cubase. I’m also a big fan of VST Connect, even long before the pandemic.
From looking at your YouTube channel, you seem to use VST Connect to quite an extent.
I mean, VST Connect is extremely powerful. If somebody I work with moves to Los Angeles, we can continue working together on records almost in the same way we’ve been used to working in-person in New York. Imagine that you’re in the midst of a session and you’d like to fill in a part with a musician from out of town. The only thing you’d need to do is to call him or her into your session using VST Connect, just like a phone call, only it records them right into the Cubase session. When I used to tell people about this technology years ago, they’d react like: “What?!”, but it rarely materialized into a session. As soon as the pandemic hit, however, more and more people understood the benefit of this technology which was allowing us to make records in the most organic way possible while living in different cities or countries.
Did it change the way of producing and recording for you?
Actually, the best part about it is that it didn’t. Right now, I’m producing a record with the rising TikTok star Sheena Melwani, for example, and we’re running the whole production via VST Connect with musicians from around the country while she’s in Boston and I’m in Brooklyn. I have to admit when I started working on the project, I was actually on vacation in Mexico producing the first tracks and running remote sessions from the beach. None of this would have been possible without VST Connect.
How did the artists adapt to this new way of studio work?
Most of them were pretty amazed at how smooth things were working out, and one of the best things, honestly, is that they don’t have to buy anything. The fact that I can control everything regarding their headphone mix, routing, interface, buffer settings etc., from my end of the line is also very helpful because the session artist or musician doesn’t really need to know too much about the tech to get it going. VST Connect has just made recording and collaborating remotely really easy for everybody. I call them up, we test it, and we start recording! We’ve been joking around that since we can only see the top half of each other generally in our webcams, that we are now able to do an entire record without anyone needing to wear pants (laughs).
Is it more complicated to get in the right mood because of the missing studio atmosphere?
Well, I consider myself very lucky since the people I work with tend to be successful probably because they’re not only talented professionals but are also wonderfully friendly people, it’s not really that difficult to get things moving and catch a nice vibe when egos aren’t an obstacle. When it comes to recording with the software, it’s somewhat similar for me to communicate with someone while they’re performing in the booth. Many artists have shared that they almost forgot that they aren’t in the studio with me once we get into it. Notably, for the massive collaboration “VOYAGE-19” record we did this past summer with the legendary artist Bilal and the HighBreedMusic family, we incorporated a Zoom hang “green room” where everybody involved in the day’s recording was hanging out while listening to the sessions going on, via some broadcast software, simultaneously coupled with VST Connect. It was great. It felt almost like people were just hanging in the control room just like during a normal session; eating Thai food while waiting for each other to finish their takes. It was a pretty magical experience with Bilal and 30 musicians creating three songs over three days with performers from 30 different locations, all without needing an extensive amount of preparation beforehand. I'm proud to say that I think we might have created some kind of masterpiece, under the masterful creative guidance of Bilal, of course, but in a way that has never been done before in the history of making records.
Besides the pandemic situation, the software also provides an option to save musicians the frustration of travelling around New York by subway while carrying all their gear. For most musicians, coming to the studio in New York means a fairly gruelling minimal trip of about 45-75 minutes each way. When people arrive at my studio it’s often after an uncomfortable trip, so they’re like: “Give me a few minutes to relax before we start!” and, because of the NY hustle energy out here, they often didn’t find time to eat, so the session starts with taking some rest and ordering food. VST Connect can save us some precious energy by comparison, because artists can be at home in their comfort zone and ready to start immediately when we connect. When the session is done, they just close the software and go back to their everyday life. It’s very convenient.