Back in 2010, we chatted with N.E.R.D.—aka Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo, and Shae Haley—about studio sessions for their fourth album, Nothing. Read on for the whole story...
Not everything comes easy, not even for seasoned veterans of the production world. Sometimes you must experience an inspirational reboot, which is just what was initiated during the creative process of Nothing, the fourth full-length release by N.E.R.D—the trio consisting of Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo, and Shae Haley.
Williams and Hugo—childhood friends and no strangers to the pop charts when collaborating as the Neptunes—began N.E.R.D with fellow native Virginian Haley around the turn of the millennium. N.E.R.D (which stands for No One Ever Really Dies) acted as a live funk-rock counterpart to the stripped down, tightly compressed synth creep they’d commercialized since the mid-1990s. Some of the Neptunes classics include the Clipse’s “When the Last Time,” Ludacris’s “Southern Hospitality,” Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass,” Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” and Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl,” while N.E.R.D tracks include “Lapdance,” “She Wants to Move,” “Everyone Nose (All the Girls Standing in the Line for the Bathroom),” and May 2010’s “Hot-n- Fun.” Now, after a period of touring and trial sessions, comes Nothing, the follow-up to 2008’s Seeing Sounds.
Of course, Nothing came out of something. “We had been working for awhile, had amassed 27 songs . . . and at that point we determined the music was good, but good was not good enough,” reflects Williams. “We’d also experimented with a girl named Rhea who’s in a band called Jealous Lover and is super cool, but at the end of the day, for what we were doing for N.E.R.D, everything just wasn’t good enough; so we scraped it all and started with nothing.”
This isn’t the first time N.E.R.D has commenced a complete reworking on the group’s material. The band’s first album, In Search of…, began as a digitally sequenced LP that debuted in Europe in September 2001. By the time it bowed in North America, though, it had instrumentation re-recorded during tracking sessions with the four-man band Spymob (this remains the version in print). For Nothing, however, the inverse is in effect. After collecting material fed from vibing off the crowds, Nothing finds itself affected in equal parts by working inthe- box while thinking outside of it.
N.E.R.D (left to right)—Chad Hugo, Pharrell Williams, and Shae Haley at the 2010 BET Awards.
In the past, much of the compositional phase of N.E.R.D involved sketching sessions with a Korg 01/W sequencer acting to trigger Korg Triton Extreme and Triton Pro synths. An Access Virus TI synth, Ensoniq ASR-10 for chopping drum samples, various Roland synths, bassline generations, and beat machines were some means to further the framing, which would be augmented by live guitar, bass, and drums used to replay keyboard-drafted guidelines. Where the shift took place in the approach to Nothing, however, was in the means of establishing song templates. The impetus was partially based on more wholeheartedly embracing digital audio workstation programs such as Logic Studio Pro, while using new tools to invoke a spirit of emotionally responsive late-’60s/early-’70s psychedelic pop with the final product.
“The world is changing; so much is going on,” says Williams. “You’ve got technological advancements like the iPad . . . Mr. Jobs is telling you where everything is going in the future because it makes people feel at ease as it still involves the most important thing to a human being, which is touch. But there are technological failures, like the [Gulf of Mexico] oil spill. It just seems like the early ’70s all over again. The Doors were a huge influence. America, Neil Young . . . a lot of stuff. It just feels right.
“Nothing is an entry way into the world we created, which is an interesting biosphere of sounds that take you into the future of the ‘baba cool’ movement, which is part hippie, parts fashion and art, posh and bohemian mixed. We wanted to make music that sounds how that must look,” continues Williams. “Usually when you make something deep it’s so heavy, and I think we wanted to make some 2012 stimuli . . . that would take you to great places but that was light on the ears and the brain. It’s not as much to think about as something to feel.”
Williams describes the artistically engaged era of the historical French flower children, as well as sessions with Hans Zimmer (while scoring the film Despicable Me) as introducing influences such as the Spaghetti Western scores of legendary Italian film composer Ennio Morricone into the creative mix. These retro-modern intentions, however, were being filtered into the N.E.R.D camp through a decidedly contemporary work-flow adaptation.
“We had all the tracks done that we had worked on for over a year, and then we came back from Christmas  to a session in Miami,” recalls Andrew Coleman, the Neptunes and thus N.E.R.D’s chief engineer for over 15 years. “We had this extensive list of gear that people had spent days collecting, and Pharrell walked in with his backpack and a USB keyboard and said we could get rid of it—he was working on the laptop now. I kind of felt bad for all the guys who stayed up at night searching for all the gear, but now all the songs and sounds are from 2010.
“It still sounds like them, but it also offers a different palette,” continues Coleman. “It’s like an artist who used to do amazing watercolors, but now also works with oil paints. And you can take the keyboard and laptop anywhere.”
Hugo had previously adopted many inthe- box techniques, and Williams always had a backpack to tote around various fashionable gadgetry, so adding in a Mac- Book Pro and portable MIDI controllers was no stretch. Certainly, not having a dozen pieces of outboard gear to have to relocate or rent (not to mention rewire) was a relief to Coleman and second engineer Mike Larson, who split N.E.R.D sessions between such facilities as South Beach Studios, Midnight Blue Studios in Miami, and the Neptunes’ own Hovercraft Studios in Virginia Beach (Hugo’s home base for mixing elements in to the base).
With ideas no longer waiting to be actualized with bodies sitting in front of the Korgs and beats synced to the Pro Tools clock, the composing of Nothing involved entire rhythm and chord progressions plus sequenced instrumentation ideas (courtesy of ESX24 virtual sampler libraries) being brought to Coleman’s Pro Tools|HD rig to form the bed of tracks. Monitoring with the Apogee Ensemble, the team would bounce the tracks down and import them, at which time Coleman would begin to apply signature tweaks to get a characteristic snap and thump.
“I use a lot of sub-mixes, and normally I’ll have some multiband compression, like the C4 [parametric compressor] from Waves going on those,” reveals Coleman. “[Metric Halo’s] Channel Strip is another one on a lot of stuff . . . maybe some Waves L2 [Ultramaximizer] across something. We’ll adjust the threshold and the ratios until it’s where it needs to be; there’s no preset.”
At this point, additions can come from several directions. The Access Virus TI still has a noticeable presence on Nothing, and live overdubs are blended into the programmed environment to reinforce it. Most often these guitar and bass licks come from Hugo, and sometimes Coleman, run into the Pro Tools DI, and then are processed through Line 6 Amp Farm and Tech21 SansAmp. In short, Williams often lays down the initial patterns he has been playing out in his head (including everything from clavinet to handclaps), Hugo replays keys and adds tones such as “angry saxophone noise” (his description), and then Williams and Haley track lead vocals, harmonies, beatbox, and other percussive sounds. When needed, different drums are auditioned and triggered from disk, but there was no recording of additional live kits during the 2010 sessions. Finally, tone sculpting commences.
“It’s a different process [to be more virtual], and it does make some things easier,” says Hugo. “There are also songs on the album that are more straightforward in rhythm, more four-on-the-floor, so there wasn’t as much time in drum editing. But this let us work with the vast selection of sounds we could put together. We’d track guitars with a Gretsch, and Drew could go in there and work with the overtones.”
For example, Coleman illustrates, “We spent a lot of time on the bass and guitar lines in [first album single] ‘Hot-n-Fun.’ The guitar reverb is a nice short haul, but it helps it stand out. We screwed around with decay times, playing with the presets in the Waves Renaissance plug-ins.” Occasionally, re-amping is used in place of processing.
As for the vocal recording chains, little changed according to Coleman. The Sony C800G, Neumann U 67 and AKG C 12 VR mics, paired up with an Avalon Vt-737sp, Neve 1081, or Tube Tech CL 1B preamp/compressor did the lion’s share of the sessions. “The clarity of the C800G always works well for me getting what Pharrell’s voice should sound like,” says Coleman. “Pharrell always says to take the lows out of his voice [rolled off around 140Hz]. He prefers the upper-mid to high range—it cuts through the music a little better.” A minimal compression setting of 2 to 3dB is reported to be used, and a highpass filter of 60 to 80Hz is set with preamp high gain on zero and a varying attack.
When recording Williams’ voice, perhaps a dab of hall reverb would be applied, but for the most part, neutrality in a streamlined signal path is the goal. In a song such as “Help Me”—with its aqueous guitar arpeggio and horn stabs (courtesy of trumpeter Jason Carder) reminiscent of the Animals “House of the Rising Sun”—the vintage inspiration matched the technique in that the echo on the vocals comes from the pure analog tradition of standing five to 10 feet off the mic, not from applying convolution reverb, etc. And on “Victory,” where vocals cascade with a Queen-meets-doo-wop chorale, the team established a root note, recorded each harmony, and stacked them, rather than creating parts virtually. Small increments of complementary coloration were provided by the combination of an all-tube Manley VOXBOX and the Neumann U 67.
Ultimately, when asked for specifics as to the production applied to the latest N.E.R.D album, Williams and Hugo want to say, well, nothing. The duo believe this latest release has a more important agenda to push than a hard vs. soft knee loudness war debate or to come across as the endorsement of a specific program/technique.
“I think the most effective interview we could offer is to inspire kids to come closer to your craft, find technology that you like that really allows you to not have to think so much, but at the same time enables you to stay focused on your idea and chisel away note-by-note, chord-by-chord, bassline-bybassline,” says Williams. “You can have all the machines in the world, but if you’re not comfortable with something, you won’t make anything. Try different programs and get comfortable with yourself, with your respective instrument, so that you can make music that affects people in a positive way, takes them on a roller coaster and offers them escapism.
“If we’re about to inspire anyone, I want it to be beyond trying out specific technology,” continues Williams. He wants people to know they are “capable of doing anything.We even have a website meant for new artists: ARTST.com—it’s ‘artist’ without an ‘i’ because it’s not about me, it’s about you.”
While he wouldn’t go into any specific thickening agents or equalizing challenges on Nothing, Coleman did celebrate the experience. “A lot of this album has been about experimentation, so that’s exciting for me to hear all those different layers of sound, different drum sounds we didn’t have access to before, and to see how we incorporated the guys’ production style into a new medium,” says Coleman.
At press time, 15 tracks were planned for inclusion on Nothing, with mixing duties going to Mark “Spike” Stent. In the end, Williams indicates the album exhibits an appreciation of simplification, a response to the frustrations of the modern technological world, a celebration of (sexy) release, and, as a line in “Hot-n- Fun” goes, “People don’t wanna think no more—they just wanna feel . . . they wanna let go.” If they can provide stimulus for people to have a good time and explore their own means of expression, N.E.R.D would love Nothing better.