Creating Christina

Project: Christina Aguilera’s Back to BasicsDates of Recording: Jan. 2006 - April 2006Studios: Chalice Recording Studios, Record Plant Location: Hollywood, CA Official Album Title: Back To Basics Producer: Rob Lewis Engineer: Oscar Ramirez

Working with Christina taught me a lot; it was like going back to school. I had first became acquainted with her in 2002 through musical director extraordinaire Rickey Minor, who had called me to audition for her upcoming tour. After becoming her musical director and touring with her for the entire year, she called on me to arrange her Grammy performance of the song “Beautiful,” for which we had a 21-piece orchestra, a 14-voice choir, PLUS a full band. After a string of performances, I finally got the opportunity to work with her in the studio when she contacted me to produce her vocals for Herbie Hancock’s album, Possibilities, which earned her and Herbie a Grammy nomination. That’s where our studio relationship really started to develop.

I’ve worked with a lot of vocalists, especially female vocalists, but Christina’s work ethic is unparalleled. She is truly a perfectionist, which has strengthened me (as a perfectionist). Every note and phrase HAD to be the best with her, or she would sing it until it was. And her engineer, Oscar Ramirez, was great. He’s the quickest guy I know with a Pro Tools rig, just the way that he catches punches, heals the separations, and cross fades. In fact, I’d call him “Oscar the Great,” and between him and her it was all done right before you could even say, “Give me a playback.”

We tracked her vocals using a Telefunken ELAM 251 with an esoteric Avalon M-5 mic pre (Editor: presumably an Avalon M-5 from the looks of Chalice’s site). Of course, it was all recorded with Pro Tools HD3, but done on a SSL J9000 console with 96 inputs, with playback coming from these custom TAD Auspergers mains. Sometimes during the sessions we would set up the Telefunken, she would sing, and I would feel like that take should be a wrap — that she had nailed it first-take. “Sounds great to me!” But she would search even deeper for the best tonality, the best phrasing, and the best take, which in turn is what creates the best records.

My involvement outside of producing Christina’s vocals was pretty wide ranged; from live string and horn arrangements to playing (and producing) live guitars, bass, and keys on top of the beats that were provided by the other producers: people like DJ Premier, Rich Harrison, Kwame, and Big Tank. I would come in to see Primo using the MPC 60II, surrounded by a Triton, a Fantom, a couple random modules, etc. And then I would see DJ Premier spinning the turntables. It was the craziest thing — finally working with all these people that I’ve respected for years. The feeling was surreal.

Chalice Recording Studios has always been one of my favorite places to record, because the vibe there is extremely comfortable. I was one of the first producers to work there when it first opened up, producing Kelly Rowland from Destiny’s Child for her movie The Seat Filler. We were in the A Studio — which is decked out with everything from the SSL to the Studer A827 — real top-of-the line stuff, of course. It’s a state-of-the-art studio, all the way down to the light fixtures. The rooms are tuned so well — you just feel good listening in there when all the hard work is done, so it’s a great place to have those “listening meetings” for label heads, A&R representatives, etc. And we cut it all in there: strings, horns, and Christina’s vocals.

It was great to be as involved as I was in the whole process. It has gotten to the point now that a dude that makes a beat and sells it to an artist, or a label, is now somehow a “producer,” but they aren’t real producers. Quincy Jones is a producer. David Foster is a producer. These guys know how to arrange and produce vocals — how to relay to a musician what he/she should play. They know how to see a record from its very conception, from just a simple melody on a guitar. And they know how to make that simple melody grow into a BIG song. They don’t just write. They don’t just engineer the proper mix. They truly produce the music. And it’s people like that — the greats — whose timeless works of art served as my textbook when we stepped in for these sessions.