AND IT ALL STARTED WHEN . . .
Starting out in high school as a compulsive crate-digger — DJing at home, then at various local venues, and eventually the famed KDAY hip-hop station — Clark became entranced not by the modern sounds of early hip-hop productions, but more by golden age jazz producers such as Teo Macero, the man behind the many Miles Davis albums Clark cites as sonic influences. Armed with a meager setup (“two turntables and an old [Roland] Dr. Rhythm”), Clark began working on his own productions — cutting up old Herbie Hancock and Parliament albums, and adding his own beats to the mix — a technique that has become a mainstay of the West Coast hip-hop sound. A foray into the Long Beach City College’s Department of Music, Radio and Television ended with Clark having made many important industry connections, especially with one Meech Wells, an L.A.-based record producer who had produced numerous tracks for Snoop Dogg.
“I had produced a track that I thought would be perfect for Snoop Dogg, and managed to get it in his hands,” Clark recalls. “Dr. Dre ended up hearing it on the bus, and liked it so much he stripped a majority of the instrumental and started using it as his intro track on the ‘Up In Smoke’ tour. After they got off the road, we hooked up in the studio, Dre did a quick remix, and we ended up co-producing what would become known as Snoop’s “Go Away.”
CRAFTING THE BEAT
Fast-forward to just a couple years later and Clark, having pulled stints at everywhere from Studio 7303 studios in Houston to L.A.’s own Encore, is spending what little time he has not working on various film and TV projects (including a soon-to-be-unveiled “reality show” focusing on up-and-coming producers) doing pre-production work for a wide-spanning roster of “tomorrow’s stars” from L.A.’s own Bacc.st to Austin songstress Cortn’i.
“I work from home doing the pre-production work on Pro Tools, only going to large studios to cut the vocals with the artist” Clark says matter-of-factly. “My Akai MPC4000 is where it all starts. Man, Roger Linn has saved my life,” he adds with a laugh. “I construct, from the ground up, with the MPC — starting with kick and snare — as that’s the most important component of any good hip-hop track. A good, fat drum sound will comprise most of the mix; it will become the key element. You have to fill up a lot of headroom, get a real full sound, but you want it to sit naturally, so it’s good to start off natural in your choice of tones.”
To do this, Clark uses a handful of session musicians, recording full kits that he will later categorize and trigger from his MPC4000. “It’s important to be consistent in where you get your sounds from. You gotta record a whole kit that works well together. A lot of guys out there . . . I hear their records and the tones just don’t match. That’s why I’m a real stickler for recording real sets, not just mixing and matching from sound banks.”
But he also employs standby drum machine sounds to properly reference classic hip-hop sounds. “I’ve used every drum machine known to man, from the Roland TR-808 to the Oberheim DMX. And I keep those sounds, sampling them before selling the gear off,” Clark says almost deviously. “But I always mix the natural sounds I’ve captured from sessions with the banked sounds so I get my own unique sounds. Like a 909, which is perfect if you want a trancy-rave kick, sounds great mixed under a real kick, but a lot of guys don’t even go that far, and you can tell.”
OLD SCHOOL MEETS NEW
There’s a lot more to a Keith Clark production than just great drum sounds arranged into hooky beats — the string arrangements that litter the peripheral have become a trademark of the “Clark sound.” “I’m using the TASCAM GigaStudio for all my orchestral strings, triggering them with the Yamaha Motif ES.” Sound banked strings? From the man that meticulously culls his drum sounds from real kits, played by real players? “It’s all about balance, between the old school and the new; using a combination of live sounds and banked sounds. Bass? I’ll run a real bass through a DI and always to tape, because you just can’t replicate that classic warmth otherwise, and that’s the sound I’m always going for. But for pianos and strings, I’m happy with using digital means. They’ve gotten it right.”
And he’s obviously gotten his sounds down right — the sales of his Big Fish Audio Platinum Essentials Series, soon to number at three, are through the roof. “After I produce a track, I’ll take the sounds I used and put them in the Platinum Essentials, and then other people will use them for their own hit songs,” Clark says, naming no names. “There’s no lack of quality; what I put out is what I really use. It’s all in the name of serious production, I’m referring back to them daily on my projects — dumping them back into my MPC, ironically enough.” But he’s always on the search for new sounds, new tools, and most importantly, new talent. “I’m always keeping an eye to the future, especially when it comes to producing albums. You have to adapt to the times, be willing to approach projects in a different way because, if you continue to think what you thought, you’ll continue to get what you got.”