Colossal Production

Charlie Tate cut his teeth by playing bass and touring with the Big Cheese All Stars and Neneh Cherry. He later formed a record label in London and became
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Charlie Tate cut his teeth by playing bass and touring with the Big Cheese All Stars and Neneh Cherry. He later formed a record label in London and became involved with urban-music production. “I learned the hard way by using samplers and a Mac Classic,” Tate says. In October 2002, Tate moved to Oakland, California, adopting the name Colossus as a production moniker and forming a collective of hip-hop musicians.

Tate wrote, recorded, and produced Colossus's debut, West Oaktown (Om Records, 2005), a jazz-inflected hip-hop work featuring musicians from the Bay Area and London. “When I got the idea for this record I didn't have a band,” Tate says. “I programmed all the drums, the Rhodes [piano sounds], the upright bass, and some rudimentary guitar. I did all the pre-production here [in West Oakland].”

For pre-production, Tate relied upon his mobile studio setup, which consists of a Mac G4 PowerBook running Emagic Logic Pro 6; an Emagic emi 2/6 USB audio interface; an HHB Radius FatMan mono mic preamp and compressor; and a Shure SM58 mic. “A lot of sounds are set up on my laptop, and I don't need to mess with them much,” Tate says. “I generally use the virtual instruments in Logic and draw everything in with the mouse.

“I start with a drum pattern and edit it as the song evolves,” Tate says. “The keys come next. I usually start with the [Emagic] evp88 [soft-synth plug-in] and mess around with chord variations. I use the Humanize function within [Logic's] Transform [window] to put a little bit of movement on things. Next, I muck around with bass samples. Normally, that takes me about five minutes.”

Tate captured vocal performances from Bay Area MCs Azeem, Capitol A, Delphi, and Regi B during pre-production. He found that the SM58, which emphasizes high- and midrange frequencies, was well suited for the task. “The big Rhodes chords occupy such a large frequency range that you have to cut the vocal at the bottom end to keep the richness and the warmth of the rest of the track,” he says. Tate also believes in capturing complete vocal takes. “I don't like comping vocal performances,” he says. “I don't think it sounds right.”

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West Oaktown

Although Tate builds tracks quickly, he carefully sculpts his sequences to impart them with as organic a feel as possible. “The background of each song is sequenced,” he says. “I used the same set of drum samples throughout. Once I have the basic arrangement, I'll get back into the drums and spend hours moving fills and adjusting velocities,” he says.

In London, Tate recorded vocals from Hilton Smythe (aka Roots Manuva), guitar, bass, and percussion at the now-defunct Blueprint Studios, which included a Mac G5 running Logic Pro 7, a MOTU 2408 mkII audio interface, an Avalon VT-737SP instrument preamp, a Focusrite ISA428 Pre Pack mic preamp, an Empirical Labs EL7 Fatso Jr. compressor/limiter, two TC Electronic PowerCore DSP devices, and a Neumann TLM 103 condenser mic. “The Fatso is crucial,” Tate says. “It gives [the evp88] extra warmth and it compresses the drums so that they sound cutting but still warm and smooth.” He recorded horn parts at Easy Access Studios and mixed the album in Logic at Blueprint.

Tate fashions his arrangements using small jazz combos as a model. “I've seen some amazing three-piece bands that create an enormous sound,” he says. “I go by the adage ‘less is more.’ After years of sequencing and programming, your filtration skills get better. I think it's a matter of doing what sounds right.”

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