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Live Wire

Get tips and techniques from heavyweight producer Timbaland in this interview about recording his album, Shock Value. Tim "Timbaland" Mosley discusses
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It's good to be the king — especially if you're Tim “Timbaland” Mosley. For well over a decade now, the 36-year-old producer has spun his quirkily deconstructed beats into gold, crafting a steady string of hits that has changed not only the face of modern hip-hop and R&B, but also of pop music in general. Hang around any dance club or tune in any radio station for a half-hour or so, and you're sure to hear Timbaland's touch — and if it isn't him (or a protégé from his closely knit clique), it's quite likely to be someone biting him.

Of course, when you're banging out tracks at a furious clip for such pop and hip-hop icons as Justin Timberlake, Nelly Furtado, Missy Elliott, Jay-Z, Ludacris, Brandy, LL Cool J, the Pussycat Dolls and dozens more, as well as harvesting platinum records as easily as most people curate their wardrobes, you might also feel entitled to a little immodesty. “Dude, that's why I'm the best there is,” Timbaland says matter-of-factly, referring to his uncanny ear for the post-mod hooks and futuristic, tricked-out rhythm sequences that have been the grit-and-gristle of his most memorable songs. “The answer is just to use what's around you. I listen to everything, from a person's voice to the sound of a car to a soda can to, when you sit down, even when you fart. [Laughs.] Everything around me is music. It all has a rhythm, and you can take that and turn it into a song. That's how my mind works. It's not about what you have [for equipment] — it's about what you're blessed with.”

Given the unbelievable breakout year that Timbaland had in 2006, there's really no arguing with him. It started with Nelly Furtado's Loose (Geffen/Mosley Music Group), which put the Canadian-born singer back on the map in front of Timbaland's aggressive, almost industrial, synth-funk production stroke (an approach that recalls the way The Neptunes — longtime friends of Timbaland from their shared home turf of Virginia Beach, Va. — handled the controls for Kelis' first two albums). By the time Timberlake's monster FutureSex/LoveSounds (Jive/Zomba) dropped in September, there was no denying that the year clearly belonged to Mr. Mosley.

Read all about Timbaland. Find articles, reviews, videos and artist interviews on the Timbaland Hot Topic page.

Fittingly, Timberlake and Furtado helped grease the wheels for Timbaland's latest and perhaps most ambitious project — the star-laden Shock Value (Geffen/Mosley Music Group, 2007), which sports a guest list as wildly diverse as the imagination that inspired it. After all, who else could get Dr. Dre, 50 Cent, Missy Elliott, Fall Out Boy and Elton John together on one album, and do it while tapping musical sources as diametrically opposed as retro-'80s pop, punk rock, Bollywood and acid blues, all with a hip-hop feel?

Back when nobody knew or cared who they were, Timbaland and Missy Elliott were hard at work making tracks

“I set out to make this like a Volume 1 of where I'm at now,” Timbaland says. “It's almost like a greatest hits, but we don't know if they're hits yet. There's something here for everybody, though, and one thing I'm proud about is that I'm stepping my rap game up. Even though I don't really want to do rap like that, I'm loving how I can sit in a track when I take my time. You know what it is? It's the confidence. I'm just more confident now.”

STOMPIN' THE (JUNK)YARD

The music on Shock Value has its roots in studio experiments that go back almost three years. At the time, as Timbaland recalls, he was trying to move toward a new sound that would not only put style-biters on notice, but would also intentionally flip the script on his method of making beats and therefore fuel a fresh creative burst. The answer turned out to be deceptively simple: Instead of relying exclusively on his signature blend of obscure samples, synthesized elements and programmed beats (many of them crafted on a workhorse Ensoniq ASR-10 sampler/keyboard), the moment was ripe for Timbaland to start incorporating live, organic sounds — drums in particular.

“I call it the junkyard sound,” he explains. “It's about just taking it back to where I'm having fun, you know? I used to try to imagine how James Brown did it when he went into a jam session, and I made that my approach — mix in a little of the new electronic stuff, but keep it sounding live, too. And it started with all these types of drums that I've collected from different countries. I just got in the room at my studio and played them.”

The mad-hypnotic single “Give It to Me” (with Furtado and Timberlake joining Timbaland on the mic) is straight out of the junkyard. The song opens with a tribal beat laid down with sticks on what sounds like a handful of African drums and woodblocks; the drums are soon joined by a whistling sci-fi synth line (in the video for the song, Timbaland can be seen playing this on a Minimoog Voyager) and a low-end synth bass line that shadows a dry-sounding kick. By the time Furtado struts her sinewy stuff on the first verse — a weirdly syncopated melody that jumps off in the middle of the measure — it's clear we're into something far-out to say the least. Even crazier, the main rhythm comprises only two or three continuous passes of Timbaland's live performance, edited and spliced into minute-long chunks.

The track is a marvel of what has long been crucial to any Timbaland production — the artful and economic layering of sounds, but with strict attention paid to the spaces between them, which adds a weird feeling of looseness to the rhythm. The effect is almost like thinking you've reached the bottom of a darkened flight of stairs when you actually still have one more step to go — for an instant, the floor seems to slip out from under you until you regain your balance. Lend some drive time to “Bounce” — a menacingly dark slow-groove jaunt with Timberlake, Dr. Dre and Missy Elliott (whose priceless rhyme “Hold up/Hell no/Like Britney Spears/I wear no drawers” speaks unexpected volumes) — and you'll feel a similar sense of disorientation.

“There's really no method to the madness,” agrees Demacio “Demo” Castellon, who has risen through the ranks to become one of the lead engineers at Timbaland's Thomas Crown Studios in Virginia Beach (see the sidebar, “Crown Jewels”). “I think that's what gives Tim the edge. Any sound is open game to be put in at any measure. It's like a free-for-all. He's taken sounds from the weirdest places, and I've seen him make stuff out of it. I mean, dude took a baby crying and put it in a track [Aaliyah's “Are You That Somebody?” from 1998], so there you go.”

“Give It to Me” and “Bounce” weren't the only jams that emerged from the free-form junkyard ethos. “Release,” again with Timberlake, swivels on a lowdown Prince-style funk riff that incorporates live drums and live bass stacked with a Korg Prophecy. Meanwhile, “Scream,” with singer Keri Hilson and the Pussycat Dolls' Nicole Scherzinger, is a reverb-drenched, almost psychedelic synth-pop throwback that derives much of its '80s flavor from a subtly placed Yamaha DX7 played by Nate “Danja” Hills (an ascendant producer in his own right and, for now, Robin to Timbaland's Batman). Finally, “Board Meeting,” with Magoo, pairs live drums and claps with a few different synth patches — possibly from an E-mu PK-6 Proteus and a Proteus 2000, both of which Timbaland has confessed to having in his keyboard arsenal at one time or another.

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SAMPLED DELIGHTS Of course, even though Shock Value is rife with live instrumentation, by no means was it ever implied that Timbaland would check his sampler at the door. The anthemic album opener, “Oh Timbaland,” makes that immediately evident, jumping off as it does with a piano figure and chorus taken from Nina Simone's classic “Sinnerman.” What's especially crafty is how, with a little creative Pro Tools editing, Simone's line “Oh sinnerman” becomes “Oh Timbaland,” and the underlying beat becomes a slinky, cut-time lope that's light-years away from the original. “I first heard that song in [the remake of] The Thomas Crown Affair,” Timbaland explains. “I can identify with Thomas Crown because I love how he carries himself — that's why I took the name for my studio. And when I heard that song, I knew we had to use it. It was incredible that you could almost hear my name in there. I redid the sample for the hi-hat, too, so some of that is me playing along with it.” Timbaland's fascination with samples naturally extends to musical exotica — a trend he helped kick-start back in 1999 with the warbling high-pitched flutes lifted from a song called “Khosara” by the late Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez, which comprised the main melody to Jay-Z's hit “Big Pimpin'.” This time around, India's Bollywood style lit Timbaland's fuse, but instead of digging for vinyl — or surfing the Web, which raised a small (and still-pending) legal ruckus last year when he grabbed an 8-bit C64 synth demo for Furtado's “Do It” — he went directly to the source and recruited a native singer to voice the lead for “Bombay.” Fusing hints of bhangra and hip-hop into a lo-fi homage to Hindi film music, the song is so true to the Bollywood style that the vocal seems hidden behind a thin veil of analog distortion. “I just captured that old vinyl sound with a little EQ,” Timbaland reveals. “When I do effects with [my engineer] Demo, we just sit there and do it right on the spot.” Demo hints that a liberal amount of analog EQ and compression — perhaps at the hands of a Drawmer 1961 and a vintage Universal Audio 1176 — may have been the secret. “For the most part, everything on the album was recorded digitally [to Pro Tools],” he says, “but we'll pass through a lot of analog equipment to give a vocal some depth. That might mean mic pres or old tube compressors; for that track, it was definitely some old analog gear.” Regardless of what he does in the studio to create a certain sound, Timbaland's encyclopedic knowledge of music in general — and his need to challenge himself by working in new genres — seems to be equally vital to his production stroke. In the same breath, he'll list artists as far-flung as Bollywood film composer R.D. Burman, Hindi singer Asha Bhosle and Nigerian funk godfather Fela Kuti among his key influences. But he's also well versed in rock history, which explains why he branched out to work with Elton John, Fall Out Boy and The Hives for several tracks on Shock Value. The Hives' take on “Throw It on Me” in particular is a refreshingly different uptempo booty-shaker with an unmistakable TR-808 kick (a reminder that Timbaland manages to dust off a few choice drum machines on the album, including the Roland CR-78 that gurgles machinelike through “Kill Yourself” with Attitude and Sebastian, aka Garland Mosley, Timbaland's younger brother). “I'm just going for something new to do,” Timbaland explains. “I mean, with Elton John, I know that we both wanted to work with each other, and we just made it happen. With Fall Out Boy, it's just their sound mixing with my sound. I feel like I have to go for different things; otherwise, I might as well stop making music.” ONE STEP BEYOND Although Timbaland foresees a not-too-distant day when he'll retire from beat-making altogether, he doesn't anticipate slowing down any time soon. Waiting in the wings is Björk's next album, Volta (One Little Indian/Atlantic, 2007), which at the time of this writing is slated to feature two tracks co-produced by Timbaland, including the single “Earth Intruders” — yet another manifestation of Timbaland's newfound junkyard sound. “Danja and I worked on that,” he reveals. “Most of it happened in New York, and then Björk went back over to Iceland to finish it up.” As he continues to stretch his talents into evermore-uncharted waters, Timbaland acknowledges that hip-hop will never be far from his immediate field of vision. Whether as a continued part of his own sound or in the torch he passes on to his successors, the boom-bap is here to stay. “When I do stop doing it, I hope the world will pick up on Danja,” Timbaland says proudly of his longtime production co-pilot. “I know the legacy will still go on through Nate. I mean, everything comes back again, and I think hip-hop will always be here in that way. With what I'm doing — bringing in different styles from different countries — that's just what I do. I'm just an innovator. Years from now, I don't know if the world will take it and run with it, but as long as I'm having fun, I'm good.” CROWN JEWELS High-end studios from coast to coast have felt Timbaland's heavy tread, and while the Hit Factory in Miami (relocated from New York in early 2005) remains one of his favorite spots, lately Timbaland has logged his most extensive hours at Thomas Crown Studios — his home base in Virginia Beach. Assembled with creative input from Jimmy Douglass — Timbaland's key engineer for many years, on many albums — the main Studio A is outfitted for 5.1 surround mixing with a Neve VR-72 console, Digidesign Pro Tools|HD and custom Augspurger monitors. The interior of the two-story complex was designed by Walters-Storyk Design Group in New York, and emphasizes full-frequency response with state-of-the-art acoustics. Now if only those walls could talk. “At one point, we were in the same cul-de-sac where Pharrell [Williams] and Chad [Hugo] had their studio,” Demacio “Demo” Castellon recalls. “So you go outside to get some fresh air, and you look across the way, and you're like, ‘Damn, I wonder what he's doing.'' This was before The Neptunes opened Hovercraft Studios, but it was cool because it gave us both some edge for a while there.” With an impressive array of outboard gear that ranges from Empirical Labs Distressors to a Lexicon 960 reverb unit, as well as all manner of microphones ranging from the stalwart Neumann U 87 to Audio-Technica's AT4060, Thomas Crown is tricked out for the ultimate in recording efficiency, and it's built to accommodate the endless permutations of creative experimentation that can redirect Timbaland's mood at any given moment. “It does depend on the vibe of the record and what exactly we're trying to accomplish,” Demo clarifies, “but the main thing is we don't really ever try to repeat ourselves with what we do, so usually it's more experimental than anything. And I think that's something that's been a part of what's happening in Virginia Beach for a long time. With Tim and Missy and The Neptunes and Danja — and even before them, with Teddy Riley and new-jack swing — without a doubt, this place has been a major influence in modern music and in hip-hop and R&B as we know it.”