Shining Star: Groovin' with Maurice White

Maurice White on the finer points of crafting an arrangement, and working with vocal talent.
Publish date:
Updated on

This article originally appeared in the October 1997 issue of Electronic Musician.

Even though high school dances provided an opportunity to meet the opposite sex and fumble through the mysteries of romance, I hated them—and Maurice White was partly to blame for my angst. Thanks to the Earth, Wind & Fire mastermind, my backside seldom left the comforting anchor of the gymnasium wall. You see, I could never reconcile the fact that the body that worked just fine on the football field was a tragic mess at negotiating the slick funk of Earth, Wind & Fire. And, back in the 1970s, if you couldn't get down, your social life was dead. My romantic career didn't recover until my college poetry classes.

In the "party hardy" era, the music of EW&F was an essential component of every dance party, road trip, and clandestine rendezvous. Songs such as "Boogie Wonderland," "Shining Star," and "Song A Song" became party classics, and it's not hard to see why: energized by White's studio wizardry, EW&F simply produced some of the hippest, hottest, good-vibe music on the planet.

And those good vibes never stopped coming. Today, after nearly 30 years of making joyful noises, EW&F has amassed more than 50 gold and platinum albums, six Grammy Awards, four American Music Awards, and enough hits to make that cat in the weird clothes and other-worldly makeup look downright silly for ordaining himself the “King of Pop.” Even better, EW&F is not a nostalgia act whose past glories are represented by some trinket on the wall of the Hard Rock Cafe. The band recently released its 22nd album, In The Name of Love, and is on the road bringing its joyful, funky party to the people. White, however, is staying home. The band''s producer and leader retired from performing in 1994 to concentrate on forming a record label, expanding his production credits, and building a state-of-the-art studio facility.

Happily, success has graced all three endeavors. The first act White signed to his Kalimba Records was keyboardist Freddie Ravel, whose contemporary jazz album ascended to the Top 20. On the production side, White charted the top-selling jazz record of 1996 with GRP Records'' Urban Nights, and he is now working on the follow-up, Urban Nights II.

The final stage of White''s “stay at home” plan — the recording studio — should be fully operational by press time. In addition, he has housed the studio, the production company (Kalimba International), and the record company under the umbrella of Magnet Vision, a music complex based in Santa Monica, California.

Although journalists should use the term “legendary” with extreme caution, White has certainly earned the right to place that word to the left of his name. As one of the pioneer funk masters, he helped forge a vibrant musical style that still moves bodies today. But his own take on dance music wasn''t limited to fat, sweaty beats and endlessly repeating hooks. White managed to “class up” the joint by fusing the harmonic sophistication of jazz with a dead-on pop sensibility. He also incorporated ethnic and folk instruments into pop songs long before world beat became a musical fashion statement. And above all, his productions have always been thick with spirit and soul. Dedicated students of music production can learn volumes about melody, groove, and song arrangement by simply checking out White''s massive discography.

Luckily, we were able to get the incredibly busy producer and music exec to share his production concepts with EM readers. Sitting in his new studio — with equipment boxes still littering the main tracking room — the 30-year veteran spoke with all of the enthusiasm of a brand new artist. It was obvious why his music is filled with joy.

Are you primarily concerned with technology or vibe when making records?
I''m interested in both. I''m very interested in technology because that is what enables us to expand our vocabulary. We have these wonderful tools available that allow us to manipulate sound and experiment with sound. Experimentation is crucial to creativity, and now we have the opportunity to try things without hesitation. If something doesn''t fit, you can always change it. That level of control is very difficult when you have a studio full of musicians.

I guess you can''t just push a button and have everyone simultaneously “edit” their parts to suit your vision.
No, you can''t! But I do like to use technology in conjunction with live musicians. I''ll utilize both styles — the live energy and the precision of technology — to produce a complete sound. I come from an acoustic background, so I''m primarily reaching for natural sounds when I write and produce songs, but, at the same time, I look for ways to blend performance and programming.

May I assume, then, that MIDI programming and music technology are the foundations of your productions?
Oh yeah, I use a lot of machines to demo the songs. All the drum machines and sound modules are running. But when we start recording for real, I''ll bring in the musicians to cut live tracks. For example, I''ll ask the drummer to play to a click so I can combine his tracks with the machine tracks. Although the groove may be programmed on the machines, I give the drummer a lot of freedom because a brother playing drums is going to create more excitement than a drum machine. To really generate some excitement, you need to capture the feeling that''s translated from one musician to another. With a machine, there''s no spirit attached.

Are the sequences pretty much set in stone, or do you let the musicians battle it out with the machines and then choose the best parts for the final arrangements?
Well, I always keep an open mind. Sometimes when the musicians start playing with the sequences we''ll see that we have to slow down or speed up a track to make it work. And then there are things that we always have to discard — parts that we thought were going to be helpful but that only cluttered things up when mixed in with the live tracks. Of course, every once in a while, we''ll end up adding some things to augment the live performances.

But how do you determine when something is working as programmed, or when a new direction is warranted?
The song is the most important thing, and the song should always dictate what works and what doesn''t. So the first thing I try to do is create a great song. I usually start writing with just piano and voice. When I think I''ve created a good song, I''ll start working with the musical arrangement — writing, sequencing, and recording parts — and then the process will come back to the vocal. The vocals are the last thing I do.

Do you always keep the vocals in mind while you''re adding parts?
Pretty much. I''m always singing along with the tracks when I''m visualizing parts. It''s always a balancing act. For example, if the horns are saying something, the vocals are not. Likewise, if the voice is saying something, then the horns don''t say anything.

That''s an interesting point. Inexperienced producers always seem to want everything “talking” at once.
I think what happens is that it''s so easy to program certain things, that some people just want to hear every single one of their great ideas. But my thing is all about trying to craft records for the listener. I want to create something that will be appealing to people''s ears. That''s the reason I like to balance everything out. Conflicts can confuse the listener. This is why the mix is very important, too. You can certainly record parts that counteract the vocal lines — and those parts can actually help by giving the track more energy — but you need to keep them back in the mix to ensure the vocals can be clearly heard. Sometimes a little EQ tweak or a level adjustment will separate other parts from the main line you want the listener to hear. The parts are still there, but they''re perceived on a more subliminal level.

How many parts do you typically develop for a song?
Oh, I like a million tracks — just like everybody else! I lock up two 24-track machines, and I also have a lot of virtual tracks going.

How do you decide which parts stay, which parts go, and which parts are placed subliminally? Do you employ any conceptual methodologies to ensure that all the material you record actually works?
No. To be honest with you, I kind of leave those decisions to my engineer. I want to be totally free to create in the studio. I like to be able to grab things out of the air. I put so much stuff on tracks, man, because I never know when I''m going to need a part.

It''s important to have options in case I change an arrangement or something and, because of that change, a part doesn''t work anymore. With all these “back up” parts recorded, I can usually find something else that works. But for the most part, I let the engineer make the initial editing decisions.

So you''re still constructing some aspects of the song arrangement at the mixing stage?
Yeah. I move stuff around a lot. I''m always flying stuff from one place to the next. Sometimes we use a sampler and sometimes we use [Digidesign] Pro Tools. We actually use Pro Tools a lot, but not as a multitrack recorder; we use it to comp tracks.

How do you track the live musicians?
The drummer plays to the MIDI tracks, and I usually record three to four guys at one time. The reason I do that is because I like the energy to flow between the musicians. I find you get better performances that way than if you overdub the drums and bass and other rhythm instruments separately. On the other hand, I don''t want a lot of musicians in there playing together because I need them to focus on their parts and really interact with the other players. It can be rough when you''re listening to the MIDI stuff and too many live players on headphones because there''s just so much sound. It''s difficult to concentrate.

So how do you usually track your horn section? Do you overdub an entire section at once?
I do the section all at once, and I always double or triple my horns. I''ve been doing that for years. I think that''s why we get such a tremendous horn sound. Of course, it''s important for the horns to be in a room that has the right atmosphere.

What type of room usually works best for recording horns?
It''s kind of a catch as catch can because you never know until you try. Every room has its own characteristics, but I usually look for a live room. I''m a horn freak, so the studio I''m building now is very, very live. The room isn''t that big, actually, but I think it will be a good environment for recording horns and drums.

What about the actual horn arrangements? How do you develop those?
I write out charts, but, normally, they''re lines that I''ve already tried using sequenced simulations. Sometimes, I''ll just sing the parts against the track and see how the horn parts work with the vocals. Then I''ll write the horn parts around the vocal. Often, I''ll be faced with the problem of having too many parts. For example, I may have to eliminate the horns during the verse and not use them until the chorus. It all depends on the feeling of the song.

Given the evolution of dance music into subgenres such as jungle, drum and bass, and techno, do you approach the funk idiom differently than you did in Earth, Wind & Fire''s classic years?
As far as a groove is concerned, I think that a lot of things have remained the same. You still have to get guys to play together, and you still have to program something that moves. The only difference nowadays is, for tracking drums and bass live, we have the opportunity to simulate the groove before it''s recorded. You can spend fifteen minutes programming something, and then you can see what the groove will sound like when you do it with a studio full of musicians.

Are you a stickler for absolutely locked-down grooves, or do you let things get loose?
I allow a little bit of space because I want that human element. You don''t want things to be perfect! You can hear it when someone is trying too hard to be precise — I certainly hear that on a lot of songs these days. I''ll think, “Oh, he''s just trying too hard.” Sometimes, I''ll purposely leave a mistake on a record because it''s a human thing. Obviously, the “mistake” has to be cool, or at least presentable, but I don''t automatically erase errors.

You''ve worked with some amazing vocalists. Do you give them much leeway?
I see where the vocalist is coming from with the song. If I think where they''re coming from is good, we''ll go in that direction. If not, I''ll take hold of the reins and kind of steer them in the right direction. I''ve found it''s usually rewarding to let the vocalist create as he or she works through the song. We''ll have a certain motif or melody, and I''ll let the vocalist take that melody and experiment with it. But I''ll typically impose some boundaries regarding the phrasing and how far the vocalist can stray from the original melody.

Often, the melody will change because the vocalist has the chops to let us experiment with dynamics, and he or she will show us a different side of the song. There have been many times where I''ve come in with a basic melodic idea, listened to the vocalist sing the song, and then changed the whole thing around the vocalist''s performance. You can discover new things about the work based on the interpretations of the musicians, but to get there you have to allow creative freedom.

A fair amount of producers like the vocalist to sing the melody as written or to stick to the demo version.
You can do that. I think that probably works with artists who are inexperienced. But I''ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of experienced, talented artists. I trust where they''re going. If they go off-key or miss the direction, I''ll bring them back to where I want them to be. But I definitely feel that it''s important to give the vocalist the freedom to experiment.

Where do you stand on technique versus passion?
I''m kind of fifty-fifty on that one. I like emotional involvement, but I still want the song represented in a technically high form.

The hype floating around the world-beat scene must be somewhat amusing to you, especially because you were juggling ethnic styles twenty years ago. Some of today''s musicians—who tend to integrate the styles badly—consider themselves pioneers of the genre.
Well, there were a lot of people who did it badly twenty years ago, too! I use world instruments as colors, as a way to expose people to different sides of the music. I don''t think you can just sit down and decide to play those things. Integrating styles is usually something that happens spontaneously.

Obviously, if you have broad life and musical experiences, those influences will creep into your compositions.
And I also think you have to be open to all types of music. I listen to a lot of jazz, but I also listen to classical music. I listen to a lot of roots music — a lot of the old blues and folk recordings, the real old stuff. I listen to all different types of music because when you experience different sounds, you add tonal colors to your ears. Then when you''re in the studio creating something, your subconscious calls on a lot of this stuff. It''s easy to access different styles and colors when you''ve got them in your heart.

Do you feel chained to the musical heritage of Earth, Wind & Fire? What I mean is, do you feel like you must always be true to the style of your biggest hits?
No. I only feel freedom, and I always approach the music that way. I don''t feel like I have to rewrite our hits because I think in terms of “that was then, and this is now.” We [Earth, Wind & Fire] can be our toughest competition, and each one of us is out there experiencing new music and new things. When you allow yourself the freedom to approach music without limitations, everything you experience can be channeled through your songs. You just have to try to stay in a place where all those experiences help you produce good music.

But, even if the band is listening to different records, I doubt that it would be stylistically appropriate for Earth, Wind & Fire to produce an ambient dance track.
Probably not. I hear a lot of weird tracks, and some stuff is just so unmusical. Some records are all about sound; they have no spirit. For example, some of the kids today can''t write a song, so they wind up sampling somebody else''s.

Well, classic songwriting does seem to be in a slump. Also, I don''t hear a lot of current artists putting their mark on past song forms and carrying music forward a step. In the early 1960s, for example, British kids heard the blues and translated it into something else.
It''s the training! What''s happening with me and a lot of other people who made good records is that we understand composition. We know how to construct a song. And we had an appreciation for the music we were influenced by, but at the same time, we were able to put our own identification on it. You must always try to give the music your identity. In other words, if I copy a line from a Muddy Waters song, even though the line was inspired by him, my version of it will probably not sound anything like his original.

What do you consider as your fundamental approach to record production?
Well, my production style definitely comes from being a drummer. You see, the drummer knows what all the musicians are playing because he or she must accentuate all the instruments and play the groove, too. Coming from that space, you have an opportunity to expand the music into any direction you want because you already know what everybody is playing.

For example, you can suggest a line for the bass player that will fit with what the guitar player is playing. In fact, I would say that all my productions are not very far removed from the drummer''s role. The sounds in the mix fit in rhythmically and sonically — just like a drummer playing the bass drum, the snare, the hi-hat, the toms, and the cymbals. So you''ve got the lows, you''ve got the highs, and all the parts fit together as a whole. Believe me, you have to have big ears to be a drummer!