From far left: Poke, Just Nyce, Spanador, Tone (sitting with guitar), Frequency and Ace 21
Photo: Howard Huang
The job of a superproducer is never done. “The world will always need hits,” insists Jean-Claude Olivier, aka Poke, one-half of Track Masters production team. “Hit records make people feel good — they're like drugs. When you become a superproducer, that's your only job, to make hits, to give people that drug.” Fresh off a three-year production hiatus, one prompted by a gradual aversion to hip-hop's increasingly Southern dominance, Poke and longtime partner Samuel “Tone” Barnes are sounding like their old selves again — the selves who, throughout the early '90s, amassed more than a wall's worth of commemorative gold and platinum plaques from artists such as Mariah Carey, Jay-Z, LL Cool J and R. Kelly. For many years before their break, they were the go-to production team for any and all artists in desperate need of a -No. 1 single. Today, their mission is as clear as ever — hit-making at any cost.
Having just wrapped up a three-month residency at Manhattan's Battery Studios — a $300,000 expense expected to yield $30 million by Poke's hasty calculations — Poke and Tone have left their respective posts as television producer and Universal Motown VP to “get back to what we do best,” Poke asserts with a sense of manifest destiny, “to save hip-hop.” Along with their newly assembled team of underling producers, consisting of Frequency, The ARE, Just Nyce and Ace 21, Track Masters are back in full swing, and they're looking for hits.
“We've completed more than 230 full songs. That means intros, verses, hooks, breaks, choruses, bridges, live instruments, all that — in three months,” Tone brags. “That's enough joints to last a few years.” While 230 songs in three months may seem like a dream come true for most producers, for these two, it's simply business as usual.
Bred in the wake of hip-hop's dog days, when the hardworking duo would simultaneously rent out five studios at a given time and work tireless hours to ensure “quality, timeless-sounding music,” as Poke labels it, the twosome employed a similar approach this go-around. Their method? A factory-style production setup where in each crevice and corner of Battery Studios, various songwriters and beatmakers worked from roughly 3 p.m. to 5 a.m. each day, cranking out as many tracks as possible. The hard work from the 90-day lockout is positioned to earn the team placements on every major urban act scheduled for release in 2008 and 2009. Nas, Busta Rhymes, The Game, Jamie Fox, Lil' Kim, Ludacris, Tyrese, Mariah Carey: Those are just a handful of the artists who will be picking through Track Masters' freshest produce in the coming weeks. Having converted Battery Studios' three rooms — consisting of SSL 9000 J Series, SSL 4064 G Series and Euphonix CS3000 consoles — into a modern-day hit factory, the business-minded Tone and Poke created a musical assembly line, manufacturing hits from the ground up. It's an unorthodox approach, but it's one befit of producers who necessitate the prefix super. “We felt like if we wanted to make a comeback, we had to go hard. We went all in and came out with enough tracks that the music industry is forced to feel our presence again.”
Over-the-top? Possibly, but by now it should be clear: Tone and Poke aren't simply looking for hits; they're swinging for the bleachers. They aren't just doing their jobs; they're vying for a place in music history, delivering what's expected from superproducers. “That's the difference between a producer and a superproducer,” Poke explains. “When you get to our level — the level of a Dr. Dre, Timbaland or Diddy — artists are expecting huge records. They don't come to Track Masters for an album cut; they call us for singles, superbig singles.”
Having begun their career in the early '90s under the direction of Uptown Records' then-rookie A&R man, Sean “Puffy” Combs, the tag-team partners Tone and Poke are no strangers to making clutch-hit singles. “It all started back around '89,” Poke reminisces. “My man's uncle owned a full-blown studio, so me and Tone [then a rapper known as Red Hot Lover Tone] used to go in there and just rock out. We had all-access, so we took advantage and learned how to program and sequence on every machine that was around. Back then it was all about two machines: the [E-mu] SP-1200 and the Akai S950. Puffy had just got his A&R gig over at Uptown, and once we met up with him, he basically bought every single track that we made.” The two fledgling producers quickly adapted to Uptown's renowned aesthetic for celebratory records that were at once syrupy sweet and boldly rugged. In so doing, Track Masters developed a production style they would return to time and again.
“The key to big-sounding records is layering. If you can layer a sample with live instruments, you're taking your track to a level that, sonically, is going to surpass what most hip-hop producers are doing.”
Twenty years ago, the tech-savvy college kids would experiment with presets from digital synthesizers like Korg's Wavestation and Yamaha's DX7 to find suitable accompaniment for E-mu- and Akai-chopped samples. After recording a variety of keyboard presets atop samples, the patient producers would deploy a trial-and-error process until they found the perfect match. Nowadays, newly affiliated producer Just Nyce says, “They know how every combination of any two presets will sound.” It was this early willingness to experiment with layering that boosted Poke and Tone's stock at Uptown.
Track Masters soon graduated from producing moderately successful acts like Chuck Rock, the Real Roxanne and Father MC to shaping the sound for soon-to-be stars such as Mary J. Blige and Jodeci. During these years at the burgeoning label, the duo developed their diligent outlook on making hits. “You have to understand, Uptown was more than a label; it was a system, a hit factory where all the songs had a blueprint,” Poke says. “If you listen closely, you'll notice a repeated layout. All the songs have singing hooks and catchy melodies. [Uptown] valued party records for the street. They were developing the pathway for music with pop appeal — crossover music. They're the reason why Track Masters sound the way that we do. The music has to feel good, even if it's a hard-hitting hip-hop record. It can't just be haphazard — a record for the sake of it. That shit don't last. It's a business. You're trying to sell product. As a producer, you've got to think strategically along these lines. Call us sellouts if you want, but you'll see who the artists call for hits.”
Track Masters have, in fact, been called sellouts, not just for managing to successfully sell records, but because they rarely program their own sounds. They don't spend tireless hours banging on MPC pads or endless nights copying WaveSamples on the ASR-10. As such, they don't act in the role of traditional hip-hop producers. Not to be confused, they can both talk a good talk about analog synthesizers, digital keyboards, VSTs and Poke's favorite, Open Labs MiKo PC synth workstation; however, as producers, they are concerned more with the overall feel of a record. To that end, Poke metaphorically describes the most recent batch of tracks as “a chocolate bar,” he says. “It's sweet but still rich, dark and thick. It's a sound that pays homage to the late '80s and early '90s. For the R&B records, we were really trying to get that Jodeci sound back. If you listen closely to what they were doing, it was ahead of its time. On the hip-hop front, we're trying to bring it back to music like [Mobb Deep's] ‘Shook Ones.'' We're trying to make hip-hop that is angry and aggressive but won't scare you from turning on your radio.” It's a sound that Poke describes as “big, stupid, heavy drums, with huge string sections — violins and cellos mixed with gigantic horn sections. When people hear how huge and well orchestrated it is, they're going to swear we found a bunch of old multitracks.”
But unlike the '80s and early '90s, when Tone and Poke used thin-sounding digital keyboards to re-create and solidify samples, this time around the team and their programmers relied heavily on Native Instruments Komplete 5 software bundle for both sample replacements and sample texturing. That — and live guitar, bass and keyboard arrangements from former Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam musician/producer, Alex “Spanador” Moseley — gave Track Masters' production squad a newfound thickness in their layering. An added bonus for the producers' big sound can be accredited to engineers Tony Maserati and Rich Travali, who, in the final stages, will lend their ears and SSL faders to Track Masters' dynamic sonic range.
The producers cite Lil' Kim's yet-to-be-titled comeback album as the example par excellence of their enhanced sampled/live instrument/keyboard-driven hybrid style. Described as “a cross between [Lil' Kim's] Hard Core and [Nas'] It Was Written,” the two say the album crosses boundaries between samples and live sounds, yielding “a sexy, but hard album” that will restore the queen to her rightful throne. Hook-writing specialist/producer Iron Solomon concurs: “They go deep into the process with their beats, and it shows because they always make big-sounding records.”
Another quality Track Masters' staff agrees upon is Tone and Poke's assiduous nature in guiding a project from start to finish. “From directing the producers to discussing ideas with the writers, they really cover the whole process of making a hit record — from stage A through Z,” notes Texan producer, The ARE.
The Assembly Line
When it came down to getting hands dirty in the studio, each day began with Poke reading a laundry list of artists who were looking for beats. Based on their knowledge of those artists, the team would then return to their stations and begin working. Despite the factory-like work setting, none of the producers felt stifled. “If anything,” The ARE says, “I think we fed off each other's energy.” On average, each producer created between two and 10 tracks a day, some of which would be scrapped and others that would enter phase two in the big mixing room. “At a certain point, Poke would come in the room and just be like — referring to the infectious music — ‘Where's the drugs? I need the drugs,''” Frequency jokes. “Though we always wanted to give him the ‘drugs,'' it was pretty unpredictable what joints were going to get picked.”
“There were some days I thought I had hits, and they would pick the beats I least expected,” The ARE adds. “It definitely improved my ear for what works on a commercial level.”
In the mixing room, Tone and Poke worked out the finishing touches while advising engineers and rearranging song structures. Simultaneously, in an adjacent room, songwriters and ghostwriters — including rappers Iron Solomon and Punchline and R&B crooners Quo, Range and the Wonder Twins — wrote ferociously on a variety of artist-specific topics. “We always have someone in mind for the songs that we make,” Poke says. “If I'm making a song for Snoop, it's going to sound like some West Coast funk shit. We're gonna do more than just put a Moog on there; we're gonna get the feel of those records — Parliament, Funkadelic, etc. The same can be said for the hooks, choruses and verses. They're artist-specific.”
The last leg of Track Masters' assembly line ends with in-house studio musician and producer, Spanador. An adept musician who once taught Vernon Reid guitar and bass during his days in Living Colour, Spanador re-creates samples and grooves with live instruments, adding a thickness and swing that recorded samples and MIDI simply can't replicate. “He does more than just replay samples; he's adding a feel,” Poke says. “He's a producer more than a studio musician.”
“I have a pretty good ear for pinpointing the key elements of a song and replaying it in a new context,” Spanador adds. “Having been playing in so many different scenes, I'm prepared for any genre or style.” Additionally, Spanador shares writing credits for his keen ability to come up with bridges that break from hip-hop's typical verse-chorus monotony.
Lots of producers and artists take months and even years to create an album's worth of material, but it's all in a day's work for Track Masters. “By 5 a.m., we'd have anywhere from six to 10 new songs in the catalog — complete,” Tone says. “Then it's time to go home, get some sleep and start back up again the next day.”
Track Masters realize that hip-hop purists among them will probably find fault with their method. “What we do is not for everyone,” Poke says. “People who criticize us usually do so because they've forgotten the definition of a producer — better yet, a superproducer. Think about Quincy Jones. You're not going to criticize him for not playing all the instruments on Thriller. As a producer, his job is to oversee the record — to bring together the best musicians, arrangers and writers — to make the best possible album. Maybe he ends up writing some of it, too, but it's not like he was playing the guitar on every track. It's not like [film producer] Jerry Bruckheimer is behind the cameras or doing the lighting on his movies. Producers are top-level managers. They oversee. At this level, when you're in such high-demand, you can't do all the work yourself, so you build yourself a staff and have them carry out the labor. Look at Puffy: He's never touched an MPC or ASR-10 in his life…and he's the richest producer of us all. There's a reason for that.”
With an $80,000-per-track asking price, Track Masters aren't too far behind their one-time disciple, and despite slumping sales in hip-hop, the two believe there is still much money to be made in the business of making hit records. “When you're producing high-quality music, people value it. They want to buy it,” Poke says. “The problem with the music industry is that they're allowing disposable music to enter the market. That's just bad management. Track Masters are famous for making wide-selling music that stands the test of time. We know what it takes to be No. 1 because we've been No. 1 for damn near 20 years.” For them, if that means employing a 10-person staff and spending three endless months at a high-end studio, so be it. In the end, it's worth it to Tone and Poke because, “There is no No. 2 or 3 in this business,” Poke says. “If you're not taking your tracks to the No. 1 spot every time, then you're nothing at all.” That's the job of a superproducer.
Gang's All Here
The Track Masters' production assembly line included equipment from Manhattan's Battery Studios, as well as gear from Frequency, The ARE, Ace 21 and Just Nyce.
Computers, DAWs, recording hardware
Apple Mac G5s running OS X
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD3 Accel system
Apple Logic Platinum 6
API 7800 Discrete 4 Buss Master Module, 8200 Discrete 8 Channel Summing Mixer
Euphonix CS3000 console
SSL SL 9000 J Series, 4064 G Series consoles
Mic, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects
Avalon E55 EQ, M22 preamp
dbx 160 compressor
Eventide H3000 Ultra-Harmonizer
Focusrite ISA 115 EQ
GML 8200 Parametric Equalizer
Klark Teknik DN360 EQ
Lexicon PCM 70 digital effects processor
Neumann U 87 mic
Neve 1064, 1073 preamps
Pultec EQH-2, EQP-1A EQs
Telefunken V72 preamp
Bomb Factory Plug-In Bundle
Native Instruments Komplete 5 bundle
Propellerhead Reason workstation, ReCycle audio loop groove tool
Steinberg Hypersonic 2 Music Workstation
Spectrasonics Atmosphere, StylusRMX, Trilogy VST instruments
Fender Rhodes electric piano
Hammond B3 organ
Line 6 Variax 600, Variax 700, Variax Acoustic 700, Bass 700
Korg microKORG synth, Triton synth workstation
Open Labs MiKo synth workstation
Roland Fantom synth workstation
Wurlitzer electric piano
Sampler/drum machines, turntables
Akai MPC2000XL, MPC4000 sampling workstations
Ensoniq ASR-10 sampler
Technics SL-1200 turntables
Monitors, headphones, amp
Bryston 4B power amp
Genelec 1031 monitors
Sony MDR-V700DJ, MDR-7509 headphones
Yamaha NS10 monitors