CAPTAIN CONTAGIOUS - EMusician

CAPTAIN CONTAGIOUS

If learning to play piano at age nine always produced the kind of payoff for people that it has for Scott Storch, the world would be filled with keyboard-playing
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If learning to play piano at age nine always produced the kind of payoff for people that it has for Scott Storch, the world would be filled with keyboard-playing millionaires. But the recipe for supreme success includes more ingredients than proficiency at playing an instrument. Songwriting talent, a producer's ear, business savvy, drive and a willingness to take risks are what bred Storch's giant career. Financially speaking, he is in the upper echelon of musicians and producers: At 32, he has a fleet of luxury cars; a Miami mansion; insane jewelry; a yacht named Storchaveli; and every pop, R&B and hip-hop artist falling all over him or herself trying to work with him.

Despite all the flash, Storch's origins were more humble. He got his first taste of success as keyboardist for The Roots in the early '90s. But as time went on, Storch felt the urge to do more. “I was really thrilled with all that we could accomplish with The Roots and doing all of the touring, that whole lifestyle of being a member of a band,” Storch says. “I just felt like I could be doing more with my career than being a member of a band. I really had a passion for being a producer. So I had to take a step backward to take a step forward.” Being that The Roots were rapidly gaining popularity, it was a risk, especially giving up his mechanical share and financial security by leaving the band. “I remember at the time I was dating this girl, and she was trying to make me feel like I had done the wrong thing,” Storch says. “You know, I'm living in this apartment, and I'm behind on my rent, and I see my group that I just quit is performing on The Jon Stewart Show. It was a moment, but I said, ‘It's all good. I'm going to survive this and do my dream.''” Fortunately, he was right. A few years after leaving The Roots, Storch produced and played keyboards for Things Fall Apart (MCA, 1999) and won a Grammy for The Roots' hit “You Got Me.”

Other early adopters of Storch's production skills included Noreaga and Busta Rhymes. Then, introduced by Eve (who rapped on “You Got Me”), Storch met Dr. Dre. “He had an appreciation for me and my piano playing,” Storch says. “Obviously, him being the biggest producer in the world, he doesn't really need any other producers, but he opened the door creatively, and he gave me a lot of opportunity. As I earned my stripes over there, the amount of responsibility and the size of the gigs I was getting over there were growing.”

Working with Dre also helped Storch collaborate with other artists in the studio. “Sometimes, [Dre will] have a vision for a record where he'll program a drum pattern and tell musicians such as myself what to play verbatim, and we'll emulate it for him, through him,” Storch says. “He's capable of doing a lot of the stuff, like playing piano. But he creates a little band. He's orchestrating his little orchestra. And sometimes, I'll be at the keyboard noodling, and he'll be at the drum machine noodling, and we'll find each other in that way — all of a sudden, boom, there's a record.” That's how the infectious piano rhythm came about on “Still D.R.E.” from Dr. Dre's Chronic 2001 (Aftermath, 1999). “I took this idea I'd been hearing, a styling that had been used in a lot of jazz records where there's this lazy, behind-the-beat [sound],” Storch says. “You're playing the chord but arpeggiating it at the same time while playing it. And that's what created that insistent little rhythm.”

LATE-NIGHT COLLABORATIONS

Storch, who reportedly pulls in more than $80,000 a track, shouldn't have to work the graveyard shift, but that's how he rolls. According to his right-hand man, engineer Wayne the Brain, the day begins in the studio, Miami's Hit Factory, at 8:30 p.m. Sometimes Wayne doesn't even get to sleep until 10 a.m. the next morning. As of this writing, Storch and company (also including engineer Conrad Golding) had finished tracks with Redman, Paris Hilton, Method Man, Irv Gotti and the Making of the Band 3 girls.

Some of the biggest hits of the last few years were created with Storch at the helm: Chris Brown's “Run It,” 50 Cent's “Candy Shop,” Terror Squad's “Lean Back,” Beyoncé's “Me, Myself and I” and Christina Aguilera's “Can't Hold Us Down,” to name a handful. He also worked with Timbaland on Justin Timberlake's “Cry Me a River” and with Dre on Eve and Gwen Stefani's “Let Me Blow Your Mind.”

Storch recently recorded eight tracks with Paris Hilton. The single “Turn It Up” is breathy and dancey like Britney Spears, also recalling girl groups of the '80s. It's not surprising that she doesn't have a particularly big or amazing voice, but Storch made the most of it. “[Hilton has the] ability to, not really sing like a Mariah Carey, but sing in a hip, new-wavey, mid-'80s, Blondieish, early-Madonna tone,” he says.

THE POWER OF PITCH

Even when Storch is working with teenage artists, such as Chris Brown, he creates a bed of music and works with vocalists and songwriters to create something that even 30-year-olds secretly sing in their cars. Those guilty-pleasure tracks are a perfect combination of simple, infectious hooks with a clean, pitch-perfect production.

“[Scott] is one of the few people I've run across in the world who has perfect pitch,” Wayne the Brain says. “As an engineer, I've had to work very hard to achieve separation in a mix. A producer will give you two things that are basically not really in the same pitch range, and you'd have to work hard to get both elements to sound good together. Scott's stuff comes out sounding good. Scott will take one out of 30,000 kick drums that he has and tune it exactly to interact with the bass properly before the record gets tracked down to Pro Tools. We try and make the record spectacular from the moment it's created, so there's no guesswork, no later misjudgments of the record. There's none of that, ‘Oh, I can't wait to hear it when it's mixed.''”

But Storch suggests that perfect pitch isn't the be-all and end-all. “Sometimes people will try and make the vocals as perfect as they can in pitch and disregard the timing and the pocket of them, and there's a lot of variables,” he says. “Sometimes you don't want to take all the life out of it. I'd rather have maybe one line that's slightly out of pitch, but the feeling is more there, and the energy has the beat.”

Still, pitch, timing and space are always on Storch's mind. “You'll be having a conversation with him,” Wayne says, “and in the back of his head, the entire record is going on, and he'll be like, ‘I got this idea. It needs a little bit more room.'' And he'll pull stuff out. A lot of times we'll go do a record for an artist, and he'll come back and strip everything out except for a click and start completely over.”

Gutting the song allows Storch to hear what's conflicting and what better suits the track. “Sometimes, if you have a nice kick that's more midrange and punchy and sort of poking more so than round,” Storch says, “that would be an opportune time to use a nice sub-bass.”

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COACH STORCH

Storch may wrangle beats and bass to his will, but when it comes to vocals, he's more diplomatic. “Sometimes, when [vocalists are] in it, it's hard to see it, so when they have an outside person coaching them through it, it helps them realize what they gotta do,” he says. “And then, slowly but surely, these rappers or singers get used to that way of thinking, and then you don't have to say anything.”

Before vocalists get to that point, though, Storch steps lightly. “You don't want anybody to think that you're trying to tell them how to do what they do,” he says. “You have to almost let people think of things themselves and just take them there to the point where they'll realize it and then figure it out. There are definitely walls that people put up around them and a lot of egos and personalities, and you have to cater to that and keep a love vibe in the room.”

Once Storch gets the vocals down, he can make further decisions about what space is left tonewise. “Some people have a sort of magic tone,” Wayne says. “Their chest-cavity tone is very compliant with electronics. And Scott will take advantage of that; he'll put heavier drums in, louder snares, brighter cymbals, because the quality of the vocal can withstand that much more quality of the music.”

ALL IN THE FAMILY

Together with Storch, Wayne has a recipe for the perfect vocal sound. But as clean and clear as it sounds, it's based on a lot of different things. Wayne prefers small, dead vocal booths — somewhere between 8-by-8 and 10-by-10 feet — but not so small that the lowest frequency in a vocalist's voice can't reproduce. The magic combination of outboard gear is a pricey Sony C800G mic (retailing for $8,500) through an Avalon Vt-737sp preamp and an Apogee AD-8000 converter into Pro Tools. “The Avalon's impedance matches incredibly with the Sony,” Wayne says. “The output of the Sony and Avalon are like twin brothers. So what comes out of Sony hits the Avalon, and I'm guaranteed not to lose any quality of the Sony.”

But the setup requires maintenance. One day, Wayne — who has an electrical engineering degree — discovered that his prized Sony C800G mic suddenly sounded horrible. After a long conversation with a tech-support guy at Sony, he learned that the mic tube only lasts 225 hours. And the Avalon Vt-737sp tube doesn't last much longer. So now he changes the Sony tube after every artist he works with and changes the Avalon tube every couple of artists. “A tube is like a light bulb,” he says. “The more you turn it on and off, the faster it's gonna blow.”

Wayne uses only one knob (on the preamp section) of the Avalon, saving EQ and compression for the monitoring side. “If you're fixing something, you can fix it before the EQ,” Wayne says. “When I walk into a studio and see 100 million red lights lit up, I know it's like, ‘Here we are set in stone'' or, ‘Here we are, someone fighting bad tubes.''”

BEAUTIFUL NEUTRALITY

“I learned a long time ago that audio is like looking through a window when it comes to recording vocals,” Wayne says. “You want to be able to see the person. Every time you add something, you're adding another window, and some of those windows are darker than others.” So while the windows are clear on the outboard side, Wayne uses an effects package — about nine plug-ins — on the monitoring side to create what he calls a “neutral setting.” An LA-2A, 4-band EQ, de-esser, TC|Chorus, WaveLab reverb, Echo Farm and Digidesign Long Delay are some of the options, sometimes with multiple copies and signal routings. But he doesn't like anything obvious, such as a wash of reverb. “All that does is muddy up the record and get in the way of the frequencies.

“In the real world,” Wayne continues, “there are millions of vibrations, outside noise rumble, flanging, phasing, chorusing, all these different things to come up with what's known as a neutral setting,” he says. “If you treated your equipment like an eardrum, everyone is going to sound like who they're supposed to sound like. So when I set up all my equipment, I set it up just like I hear things. And everyone goes crazy when they hear their vocals.”

Once the vocals are down, Wayne eliminates artifacts and rolls off frequencies that cause any rumbling or echo. One big issue is headphone bleed. “Headphone bleed needs to be eliminated because it makes frequencies bug out when you put it back with the multitrack,” he says. He prefers Sony MDR-V700DJ headphones because the cushion's good enough to eliminate a lot of bleeding. And if they're well taken care of, he won't have to turn up the volume louder than expected to compensate for worn-out, abused headphones. He also brings his own Samsung headphone amp that matches the impedance of the headphones (600 ohms), so the headphones won't blow out.

SOUNDS OF THE PIANO MAN

Although Storch mainly plays keyboards, he's versatile with sounds. Case in point is the wah-wah guitar of Beyoncé's “Me, Myself and I,” which he emulated on a keyboard. “Sometimes I use a real wah-wah pedal and run it through a guitar patch,” Storch says. “You gotta get to the heart of what register certain presets are set up for in certain octaves, what sounds believable within that artificial instrument.”

He does the same thing with string sounds, using a good orchestra set for synthetic strings when necessary. “Live strings, there's no limit to what you can do, and there's no keyboard sound or anything that could ever compete with that,” Storch says. “If the center of the song is strings, then you gotta take the plunge and put together a string section, which is obviously not a cheap thing to do. But with certain situations it doesn't make sense, and I just try to make the most of it.”

However, sounds that aren't the center of attention are still important, such as the surprise cameos of bell-like synths during Lil' Kim's verse on Christina Aguilera's “Can't Hold Us Down.” “You gotta keep people's attention,” Storch insists. “So sometimes I'll save an element for two minutes into the song, something refreshing and new to get into halfway into the record. There are a couple of cats out here that make more than an 8-bar loop, that take the time for the song to count for all four minutes.”

Although Storch likes the finer things in life, his hardware synth collection is surprisingly small. “I used to work with Mario Winans, and he would have me set up 45 different instruments and go really crazy,” Wayne says. “I started working with Scott, and he would set up five things, and bang! The lack of so many toys to play with definitely helps in being creative.” On the other hand, Storch is expanding on his software synth collection. “When you get a new bunch of sounds added to the computer, it inspires a whole bunch of new songs, and it gives you a little creative turbocharge,” Storch says.

Creative energy is something Storch has in spades, and with his engineering team, he's a force to be reckoned with. But from being a guy who was once behind on his rent to a superproducer with an endless cash flow, Storch is a good example of someone who balances creativity with business savvy. “You can't rush into the first deal that somebody offers you,” he says. “As much as you feel like you need to or whatever emergency it is financially, you can't compromise. It might work for you at the time, but you might regret it later. People have a hard time thinking of themselves as successful and [end up] limiting what their future can do if they sign to somebody exclusively or make the wrong decisions in a contract. My advice is, look before you leap.”

KIT AT THE HIT FACTORY

Computer, DAW, recording hardware, console
Apogee AD-8000 converter: “It works with the neutrality formula I have,” Wayne says. “I also use it to clock on any Pro Tools system. I plugged the clock in, and it changed my life. It sounds so thick and rich.”

Apple Mac G5 computer

Digidesign 192 I/O (3), 888 I/O (2) interfaces, Pro Tools software

Furman PL-Plus power conditioner SSL 9000J console

Samplers, drum machines
Akai MPC2000XL, MPC3000: “My main drum programming comes from the MPC3000 and 2000 side by side,” Storch says. “I think the 3000 is the best sounding. But the MPC2000 is the most user-friendly. You can change the instrument that corresponds with [the MIDI channel] without having to stop the record. That's important for me while I'm creating.”

Software, plug-ins
Arturia Minimoog V software synth

BitHeadz Unity software sampler/synth

Digidesign Long Delay plug-in

GForce Oddity software synth

Line 6 Echo Farm plug-in

Plogue Bidule modular-audio software: “Plogue is a workspace where you can take virtual instruments, combine them and control them with a MIDI source,” Wayne says. “It's a platform for VST plug-in instruments and Audio Units plug-ins, and it does a whole lot more.”

Steinberg WaveLab reverb plug-in

TC|Works TC|Chorus plug-in

Universal Audio Teletronix LA-2A plug-in

Synths, modules
E-mu Vintage Pro sound module

Novation SuperNova synth

Roland XV-5080 sound module (2)

Soundart Chameleon audio DSP engine

Studio Electronics SE-1 sound module

Yamaha Motif synth

Mic, mic preamp/compressor/EQ
Avalon Vt-737sp preamp/compressor/EQ

Sony C800G mic

Headphones, monitors
Genelec 1031A monitors

Sony MDR700 headphones

WHEN YOU CAN'T FUND IT, FUDGE IT

When Wayne's Avalon pre and Sony mic were stolen from P. Diddy's studio a while back, he used a Neumann U 87 with a $200 Behringer preamp. To get more power from the more economical mic pre, Wayne found a way to get a stronger signal. “I couldn't get enough power,” he says. “I like vocals nice, rich and thick, and that requires a nice, warm signal. So I came up with a way that I would run out of the preamp into a Pro Tools input in an aux channel, and run that into an analog channel plug-in and bus that back to the track I was recording on. I would boost my signal that way. And I had the setting saved. If you don't save your settings, you can't advance. You gotta save them, memorize what they do for all different types of sound, and when you get that method down, move on to the next.”