Swallowing snacks while previewing the in-flight entertainment lineup aboard a New York to L.A. flight, two Beastie Boys are suddenly surrounded by the jet's cabin crew. No strangers to adulation, the Beasties welcome the perks that come with million-selling record status and recognizable pop culture faces.
“Nice to meet you,” says Captain David Ricketts as he introduces himself. “We appreciate your being onboard, and we appreciate your music. How long are you in L.A.?” Adam Yauch (aka MCA) and Adam Horowitz (Adrock) extend their hands, smile amiably and chew the airline fat. Mike Diamond (Mike D) has already landed in L.A., his newborn baby making his life even more hectic.
“This is actually my personal plane that I am letting Adam Horowitz fly on,” MCA claims. “Normally, Adam doesn't let me fly on his plane, but I am letting him ride on my plane.”
Private jets, first class travel, a personal introduction from the captain — it all sounds like a scene from a Beastie Boys video. Each Beastie Boy has his own personal jet? “Nah,” MCA says with a laugh over the phone. “I am just kidding. This is a commercial United flight.”
The ability to fly high with the beautiful people while maintaining supreme street credibility illustrates why, six years after their last album, Hello Nasty (Capitol, 1998), the Beastie Boys' To the 5 Boroughs (Capitol, 2004) is one of the year's best-selling albums — debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart — and a call to arms for hip-hop's old-school faithful.
MCA, Adrock and Mike D began writing songs for the album shortly before the 9/11 horror, but the Beasties don't acknowledge that event as a turning point and delay in the creative process. Though the event was soul-crushing, the trio's ongoing computer software problems are what actually held 5 Boroughs at bay.
HELLO, PROPELLERHEAD? MCA CALLING
“We couldn't get Reason to work at all with Pro Tools,” MCA explains. “If you were on Mac OS 9 about two years ago, when we began the record, those two things didn't work. We would work in Reason, then have to export it as a 2-track file, then import it into Pro Tools to do vocals on it. But if we wanted to go back and change things, it was a real pain in the neck. We kept calling Propellerhead and Digidesign to push them to get their stuff to work together. They did get them working together somewhat; they still didn't work together perfectly, but you could open Reason as a plug-in in Pro Tools and send something out of different outputs and, with Reason, have it all come in on different tracks in Pro Tools. That made it easier to go back and forth.
“I still didn't run Reason in real time when we were coming out of multiple channels, like a slave to Pro Tools, because it would keep crashing,” he continues. “But you could get it hooked up and lay off stuff on separate tracks and then put those Reason channels to sleep once the audio files were in there. If I needed to change something, I would reactivate the tracks and reopen the Reason session, change the programming and bring it back in.”
Despite the jolts of the preproduction process, MCA, Adrock and Mike D knew the kind of album that they wanted to make. Still enamored of raw samples and old-school hip-hop, the Beasties trawled their record collection for sound bites and inspiration from a decades-spanning cache as far flung as the Sugarhill Gang, Marley Marl, the Partridge Family, the Flaming Lips, Peggy Lee and the Dead Boys. With recording techniques that had transformed since the more laborious Hello Nasty sessions, the Beasties went whole hog importing sound files on Apple iPods and CD-Rs to their Tribeca-based New York City Oscilloscope Studios. At Oscilloscope, the Pro Tools HD and Apple Mac G4 system ran dutifully alongside an analog Neve and Studer rig. And though the dozens of outboard effects occasionally met with the mild consternation of the album's studio overlord, Super Engineer Duro — who performed final mixdown on a Pro Tools|24 Mixplus system and a G4 — the Beasties gained a new kind of recording efficiency this time around.
“The way that we interacted with each other using computers at home and bringing stuff in on iPods was like nothing that we had done before,” Mike D recalls. “Hello Nasty was done on Pro Tools at Oscilloscope, but it was prohibitively expensive for everyone to have that in their home. In the four years since, the technology changed completely. It was very nice having that freedom where each of us could work on things in our own environment and bring them in from home. In my home studio, I am using Reason and Pro Tools HD on a Mac G4; I also have a PowerBook and a Digidesign Mbox. The Adams have similar setups, though Horowitz still likes the E-mu SP-1200 for beats.”
With everyone home-brewing 2-tracks, the Beasties reunited at Oscilloscope to play the results of their labors. Soon, they were cracking heads and writing rhymes. “We'd take our 2-track demos into Pro Tools and plug some hand-held mics into a PreSonus Digimax setup,” Mike D explains. “We throw rough vocals onto that and see how it comes together. Then, we will hone in on a track that appeals to all of us, loop eight or 12 bars of a section and literally sit there with our notebooks open and try to write raps and ideas. If the song starts to sound good, we will reinforce the music at a higher quality, separate all the instruments when we reimport it, work on the arrangements and recut the vocals with AKG 414 mics running Neve EQs and compressors coming into the Neve console. We work fast: Whatever sounds good, we refine it.”
Rife with old-school vibes — as well as TV commercial impressions (“It's fresssssssh”), inside jokes (“your Grandma's kugel!”) and excellent smart-ass rhymes — To the 5 Boroughs is unabashedly nostalgic for an era when hip-hop was at its most fertile and techno was just beginning to introduce its catalog of blips, bleeps and tweaked-out flourishes. “The album is old-school but old-school-meets-the-future,” Adrock says. “We were trying to do new stuff, but we were also unable to get away from our hip-hop influences. And there is a fine line between old school and techno.”
“In terms of an old-school direction, that was never planned or even talked about,” Mike D adds. “When we are making hip-hop, we've got this mid-'80s thing stuck in the hard drive of our brains, and it is impossible for that not to be an influence. So it was not as much a conscious decision to draw on that as much as it is impossible for us to get away from it.”
WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
Album opener “Ch-Check It Out” is classic Beastie Boys, with silly lyrics charging over ear-splitting brass shouts and a bell-driven, ultrafunky beat that pulls and punches rhythmic sleight of hand with all the madness of a Looney Tunes chase scene. With its stuttering vocals and warbling effects, “Ch-Check It Out” is as cool as “Riunite on ice.” It all began with Adrock's beats.
“On ‘Check It Out,’ we did the beat and the whole track in Pro Tools,” Adrock says. “The song has two beats, both from Peggy Lee's Is That All There Is?, a record I bought 15 years ago. One beat is from ‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay’; the other is from another song on the same record. I added extra kicks and snares from Reason. It took a minute to sync all the stuff up. The Time Compression/Expansion plug-in in Pro Tools lets you get the beat in the ballpark of the tempo, then stretch it to exactly where you want it. I would never even think to have done that before; all I would have done is chop it and make a whole new beat.
“What I brought in originally for ‘Check It Out’ sounded terrible,” he adds. “So I brought my Peggy Lee record back in so we could resample it. Yauch got the CD, but the old, shitty record sounded better than the new CD. The CD didn't capture as much of the dynamics, and it was almost too bright. The cymbals and the beat became this wash whereas the vinyl actually had greater high-end definition, which is surprising.”
MCA handled the Pro Tools maneuvers, letting Adrock function as the track's eyes and ears. He also cut the track's brass hits. “We exported the beats into Pro Tools and time-compressed one of them to make them both the same tempo,” MCA says. “Then, we decided to make one the chorus beat and the other the verse beat. The chorus beat had this horn hit on the one, so we left it. Then, there was this other horn sound in the other drum sample, so we chopped it up and came up with a horn pattern for it in the verse. Then, we took the second half of the beat and played it first; we flipped them. There is no bass line — we programmed an 808 kick pattern underneath so there is some low end.”
Both “Ch-Check It Out” beats are so flowing and hyperactive, you have to wonder how much was played in real time by Adrock (using Reason's instruments) and how much was quantized to fit. MCA explains: “We don't always quantize, but that song is pretty on the grid. We just made the loop work. The snares don't hit right on the two and the four; they float a little. But the horn stabs are right on the grid. Sometimes, it is easy to work on the grid because you can move things around real fast. If it doesn't work, you can slip it a little bit.”
“Ch-Check It Out” also has what sounds like a mystery vocal, or at least ghost notes. Way, way back in the chorus is the soprano aura of a grade school girl's choir — or is it? “That is some leftover reverb from the bar before the Peggy Lee vocal sample,” Adrock says. “She is singing the chorus; then, there is a breakdown in the song, but right before the breakdown, the horns climax, then stop. So what you are hearing is the carryover note. That is why sampling is so cool, because you get sounds and shit that you would never, ever think of making that just sort of happen accidentally.”
Although many vocalists choose to do their parts solo, the Beastie Boys work best with a three-mic, three-booth vocal setup. Using movable gobos (a type of baffle) and three AKG 414s, Adrock, Mike D and MCA record their vocals simultaneously in full view of one another.
“There is something about the energy of the three of us in the room at the same time,” MCA says. “The main take for any given song will always come from that setting. You could go individually and really scrutinize and do a million punches, but, somehow, the master take always comes from the three of us together. We don't do as many fixes as compared to how most records are made.”
Although the approach to recording vocals sounds straightforward, effects are more experimental. MCA spills the beans, challa bread and all. “Sometimes, we would create delays for the vocals just editing within Pro Tools,” he says. “Years ago, on an analog console, we would set up a throw and throw the vocal to a delay. But with Pro Tools, we will duplicate the vocal on another track and then go through and delete whatever part of the vocal we don't want and throw to a delay, leaving little bits of the vocal you do want to hit the delay.”
“The Beastie Boys are unique in their three-mic, three-booth setup, though EPMD used to do it that way, too,” says studio guru Super Engineer Duro. “Usually, each person does their part individually, but it works for the Beastie Boys because their chemistry is really good and they bounce off each other's energy. They are all hilarious in their own way, but MCA is more the studio guy, Mike D is the business guy, and Adrock is strictly about the music. It was a really relaxed environment, and there was no pressure, so I spent more time on each song than I usually do. The hours we worked were like banker's hours — it was a ghost town by seven o'clock.”
MIKE'S MIDI BRIDGE
Fortunately, working 9-to-5 hours didn't hinder the group's creativity. And the Beasties found themselves mixing their old methods with the new technology that they were previously hesitant to jump on. “We were late on the whole computer thing,” Adrock admits. “I was always like, ‘Who needs a computer?’ But it really changed how we made this record. There are things that get lost. Working a drum machine, you can smack it around and feel like you are making a pizza. The old days of punch-ins and everybody standing there putting different fingers on different buttons to get the song right in the mix are gone. But I am sure we will be going back to that. The computer thing is cool, but I don't think we are going to do everything the same way on the next one.”
Nevertheless, the group was definitely into the new process. For Mike D's techno-addled, politically charged “Time to Build,” he mixed vinyl with software when he sampled an Indian string instrument and then used MIDI to match it with an EPMD vocal sample. “That began with a combination of a beat I did in Reason and a sample I took — and completely changed — of a Punjabi instrument called a tumbi,” he says. “I put that into Reason's Dr.Rex sample-player and mapped it out in MIDI using ReCycle; then, I chopped it up just taking individual notes and basically replayed the line. So I had a programmed beat and this MIDI-mapped-out sample, if you will, then brought that into the studio, and we somehow ended up with the EPMD sample, which is in the chorus. It is hard to say who thought of the EPMD sample, 'cause we really collaborate on everything.”
But even after more than 20 years working together, Adrock, MCA and Mike D still don't have all the answers when it comes to making records. Nothing is that simple for this triple-trouble trio. “I don't have any advice!” says Adrock with a laugh. “We take a long time. We are never happy, so we end up going back and tweaking things. That is why we always take so long to make a record. Sometimes, you got to work. If it sounds good, just be happy with it and know that it sounds good.”
BEASTIE BOYS' OSCILLOSCOPE STUDIOS
Control Room A
COMPUTER, DAW, RECORDING HARDWARE:
Apple Mac G4 computer
Digidesign Pro Tools HD system
Emagic Logic Audio software
CONSOLE, MIXERS, INTERFACES:
Digidesign ProControl control surface
Neve 8058 MK I console, 28 I/O w/31102 mic preamp/EQ
Studer A80 ¼-inch 2-track tape machine
SYNTHS, MODULES, SOFTWARE, PLUG-INS, INSTRUMENTS:
Moog Music Minimoog synth
Propellerhead Reason, ReCycle software
MICS, MIC PREAMPS, EQs, COMPRESSORS, EFFECTS:
AKG C 414 mics (3)
Alesis MidiVerb 4 effects unit
dbx 160A, 166 compressor/limiter; Subharmonic Synthesizer rack unit
DeltaLab Effectron II delay
DigiTech RDS-1900 delay, TSR-24S digital multi-effects unit
Langevin Dual-Channel Electro-Optical Limiter
Lexicon Alex Digital Effects Processor
Maestro Echoplex tape delay
Manley Stereo Variable-Mu Limiter/Compressor
MXR 126 Flanger/Doubler
EMT 162 plate reverb
PreSonus DigiMax LT 8-channel mic preamp w/ADAT Lightpipe output
Purple Audio MC77 compressor/limiter
Seven Woods Audio Ursa Major Space Station SST-206 effects unit
Summit Audio EQF-100 EQ, TPA-200B preamp
TC Electronic TC 2290 digital delay
Tech 21 SansAmp PSA-1 preamp
Yamaha REV7 digital reverb, SPX90 digital effects processor
Genelec 1031s, 7060A subwoofer
Control Room B/mixdown
Apple Mac G4 computer
dbx 902 de-essers (6)
Digidesign Pro Tools|24 Mixplus system, 888|24 I/Os
Lexicon 960L reverb
Neve 1100 mic pres (6)
Purple Audio MC77 compressor/limiter
Tapco 4400 spring reverb
SUPER DURO CHARGED
Receiving top billing after the Beastie Boys in the album credits for his mixing efforts, Super Engineer Duro previously handled the board for Fabolous, Jay-Z and DMX; he has also produced Mariah Carey, DJ Clue and Jay-Z. And despite the Beasties' studio intentions, Duro had a plan of his own for To the 5 Boroughs.
“Mixing is not really a technical science — I listen to the record and the way it makes me feel, and I react to the sounds,” he says. “The Beastie Boys wanted me to mix on their old Neve console, but I convinced them to do it all in Pro Tools HD. The album has an old hip-hop feel, but, sonically, it is up-to-date. I look at mixing like a collage: I try to carve the sounds and place them according to priority, which sounds I think will affect people the most and what people will gravitate toward. I did some crazy panning, delay effects, warped stuff. It is a headphone album. I manipulated vocals and sounds with a Lexicon 960 reverb, dbx 902 de-essers and a couple of old Tapco spring delays. But it was mostly Pro Tools plug-ins like Echo Farm, Focusrite EQ plug-ins, Bomb Factory compressors.”