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Imitation Experiment: The Percolator by Cajmere

For any new readers, the goal of the imitation experiment is to see what I can learn about a piece of music by trying to recreate it.

The Original

Coffee Pot (The Percolator) is a classic Chicago House track by Curtis Jones aka Cajmere aka Green Velvet.

In The Underground is Massive, Michaelangelo Matos says that The Percolator was a massive hit in the nascent Chicago House scene.

“When ‘The Percolator’ came out, it was like a tidal wave,” remembers Justin Long. “Around Chicago during that time, there was definitely a Percolator dance. When a dance is made after your song, you know it’s something special – like the Electric Slide.” Another Chicago-bred house jock, DJ Sneak, adds: “It was a track that everybody could play. Not just the ghetto South Side kids, not just Bad Boy Bill on the radio – everybody came for that record.”

I think The Percolator has aged well. It still has the power to move your feet, and it shows how a little clever knob-twiddling could go a long way, even with the gear available in 1992.

Analysis

There are not many elements in The Percolator. After several listens I hear the vocals, the drum machine, and the lead synthesizer. At first I thought there was a quiet sub-bass in there, but now I think that’s just a low tom.

In many modern EDM tracks, there is a lot of dynamics processing, EQ, and other effects that bring out aspects of the mix. In The Percolator, it sounds like there is very little dynamics processing or equalization. This is not necessarily a product of when the track was made. From interviews, we know that Jones took the track into a recording studio when he had figured out the sounds he wanted. According to the interview in The Quietus, the engineer was an expert. So the lack of extreme dynamic processing may simply indicate that Jones spent time finding sounds that naturally worked well together.

The vocals are looped and sliced, but seem otherwise dry.

I was unable to find a quote where Jones specifically identified the drum machine used in The Percolator. The obvious candidates were the 808 or the 909, but in a Reddit thread on the drum machine in The Percolator, commenters agreed that it sounded like a Boss Dr. Rhythm 660. The drum pattern varies every few bars throughout the piece, usually by adding a new element to the previous pattern.

The lead synthesizer is the most interesting aspect of the piece. The vocal line might be the hook that people remember, but the synthesizer is what moves their feet. To me, it sounds like a low pass filter with very high resonance where the performer turns the frequency from the maximum to the minimum to generate the pattern. This could be any number of available synthesizers, and none of the sources available to me list a specific synth favored by Jones.

There seems to be very little use of the stereo field.

As far as EQ, the track is clearly EQed for a thumping bass 90s club speaker system more than it is EQed for listening on earbuds from your iphone.

Outside of the vocals, there’s only one sample in the piece. Around 3:10 every other part cuts out and a roll on a hand drum is heard for a single measure. It’s a moment to give dancers a measure to take a breath and cheer before the piece wraps up.

Remake

To remake this track, I started with the drums. I tried to remake the sounds using Drumatic, my favorite drum synthesizer. The 808 preset on that synthesizer comes pretty close to the sound in The Percolator. Then I tried the 808 Tuned Kit preset in Battery 4, and I thought that sounded closer to the recording with less work. Also Battery is a more portable format, so it’s easier to share. Here’s the list of samples I ended up using. It’s mostly 808 samples with a few other samples mixed in.

  • Kick 808 6 – Tuned up 5.88 semitones
  • MidTom 808 2 – Tuned up 4 semitones
  • HiTom 808 3 – Tuned up 4.45 semitones
  • Snare 808 12 – Tuned down 6 semitones
  • Clap 808 2 – Tuned down 9 semitones with a 230ms decay
  • Kick 909 11 – Tuned down 2 semitones with a Low Pass Filter at 300Hz
  • ClosedHH House 3 – Tuned up 2 semitones
  • OpenHH Dubway 1
  • Snare 808 12 – Tuned down 6 semitones with a 209ms decay
  • Snare 808 12 – Tuned down 6 semitones with a 66ms decay

Remaking that synth sound was the trickiest part. It sounds like a fast filter sweeping across a sine tone. It sounds like he performed the rhythm by twirling the knob. Unfortunately, I don’t have whatever synth he used. So I tried to recreate it in Massive. I was able to get pretty close using two low pass filters hooked up to a performer, which is a curve sequencer that acts a bit like an LFO.

My sound is clearly not as funky as the original. I attribute this to several things. First, the human performance aspect of the original probably helped. Second, the filter he was using was a little edgier than most digital filters.

An interesting side-effect of the filter sweeps is that they add little percussive clicks whenever the filter reaches 0Hz. These clicks sound a bit like synthesized kick drums with tight low pass filters. In other words, a side effect of this performance technique may have been to add extra thump to the drums. That may be part of what made it stand out when DJs played it back in 1992.

Remaking the vocals wasn’t tricky in terms of editing, but it was essentially impossible in terms of timbre and liveliness. I tried to record the line after an eleven hour day at work. I made five attempts with three different microphones, but none of them had the liveliness of the Curtis Jones line. It sounds like he’s speaking monotonously, but really, he speaks with authority and musical rhythm that is difficult to recapture for someone like me who almost never performs with his voice.

The sound of Curtis Jones speaking “it’s time for the perculayda” is a bit like The Amen Break. It might seem simple on the surface, but the magic in the original can’t be duplicated.

Here’s my remake on SoundCloud.

Conclusions

The Percolator is a great track because it combines unique rhythmic sound design with a quirky, adventurous approach to composition. Although the piece was written when EDM was in its infancy, it reflects a deep understanding of EDM at the time and where EDM was headed.

There aren’t that many elements in the percolator. Just the vocals, synthesizer, and drums. Interest is generated through the internal structure of each part, and how that structure interacts with the other parts.

The lead synthesizer is just awesome in The Percolator. It’s an electronic screech performed in a very rhythmic, danceable way. It’s simultaneously robotic and human at the same time. Also, it reinforces the beat. The filter sweeps create thumping rhythmic patterns that accentuate and contrast with the drums. It’s easy to hear why dancers found it so mesmerizing at the time.

Until I did the remake, I didn’t hear the quirky form that underpins The Percolator. The form is a fascinating hybrid of a layered form with a pop-style verse-choruse form. The drums follow a layered form; they build up element by element, then break down, then build up again. The synthesizer, on the other hand, alternates between three contrasting loops in a generally sequential pattern of intro, verse, chorus. This is easiest to see in an annotated screenshot of my remake.

A final interesting note about this piece is that it may have been created with only a drum machine (and the vocal loop, obviously). The lead synthesizer sounds very much like a filter opening and closing on a classic synthesized kick drum.

Further Reading

The Underground is Massive by Michaelangelo Matos
Caffeine Funk: An Interview with Cajmere
14 Synthesizers that Shaped Modern Music
Wiki: Curtis Jones

Source Samples and Patches for the Remake

This zip file contains one battery drum kit, three Massive patches, and a loop of me chanting “it’s time for the percolator.” Have fun with it!

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