Pharrell Williams strolls into the lounge at Electric Lady studios, plops down his skinny frame on a large leather sofa and begins a lengthy text-messaging session. Constantly multitasking, the vocalist, bucket drummer and producer extraordinaire busily e-chats with Madonna via his Blackberry while explaining what makes N.E.R.D different from he and partner Chad Hugo's million-dollar-earning production alter ego, The Neptunes.
“N.E.R.D is to the left because of its attitude,” Williams explains. “Aesthetically, it's individual music, written from the perspective of the conscious. The songs all have this other look to them, a whole different feel. A lot of people might write ‘C'mon baby'' or ‘I want you tonight'' — we hear those things so much that we become desensitized and it no longer sounds like the way people really think. N.E.R.D is written the way a person really thinks versus conversation. More like a conversation with one's self versus everyday sayings.”
Either a visionary sage/producer or a philosophical chatterbox, Williams talks in broad strokes, going to great pains to illuminate what he really thinks and what lies behind the Wizard of Oz-like facade that is N.E.R.D, and by extension, The Neptunes. When asked about the title of N.E.R.D's third album, Seeing Sounds (Virgin, 2008), Williams can't resist elaborating — to the left.
“Some people make music and they see things,” Williams explains, adjusting the red Billionaire Boys Club cap from one of his clothing lines (the other is called Ice Cream). “The condition is called synesthesia. It's when one of your senses gets more information than what's intended. When you hear, your ears send auditory images to your brain. But some people conjure [visual] images to the sound, as well. That's synesthesia. An easy way to see if you've got it is if when you go in the shower, and your imagination goes crazy. Synesthesia is stimulated by sensory deprivation, like when the showerhead is making so much noise it blocks out everything else. Once the senses are blocked out, then your mind is free to run wild and think about whatever.
“Sure, my lyrics are inspired by synesthesia,” Williams adds. “You ask any great rapper or writer or musician, and they'll tell you their craziest ideas come from the shower or the plane because in both places there is sensory deprivation.”
FROM MARVIN TO MICK
Seeing Sounds is an apt title for N.E.R.D's third effort (after In Search Of… [Virgin, 2002] and Fly or Die [Virgin, 2004]), a bold cross-pollination of many sounds and styles. Superpowered by the gleaming, energetic Pro Tools|HD-enabled production that is the Williams/Hugo/Neptunes trademark, Seeing Sounds references artists as diverse as Marvin Gaye (“Yea You,” inspired by tenor saxophonist Gary Bartz's “Celestial Blues” [from Gary Bartz Ntu Troop's Harlem Bush Music: Uhuru, Milestone, 1971]), the Rolling Stones (“Out of My Head”) and even Baltimore's B-More dance scene (“Everybody Nose”). Recorded at South Beach Studios (Miami) and the Record Plant (L.A.), Seeing Sounds is marked by its sonically supercharged production ID.
“That was natural for us because we felt like it was missing,” Williams says. “Fred Durst left it wide open. Remember ‘Nookie''? It's been a minute since any of that energy has been around. Shay, can you name any records with that kind of energy?”
“Now?” asks Shay, N.E.R.D's third member, who, when not answering questions, buries his head in his hands. “The last record I would say was the last Red Hot Chili Peppers album. That had a few joints up there that commanded you to go berserk and just mosh or punch the closest person to you in the face.”
“But those weren't singles,” Williams corrects. “It's been a minute since somebody like Fred gave you [the equivalent] of a can of Red Bull. ‘C'mon,'' I said to Andrew [Coleman, N.E.R.D's engineer], you've heard those Beatles records. Let's put the drums and bass on the right, keys in the middle, and the mothafucking guitar and backgrounds on the left. Let's go!' But Andrew said, ‘You don't understand, those systems were different back then. If we do that, you'll be in a club and all you will hear on one side of the club is drums and on the other side, just chords.'' So we couldn't do that.”
MIA due to a bad cold, Chad Hugo later speaks on the phone from Cleveland. His take on Seeing Sounds is, as expected, more grounded in a production aesthetic.
“Seeing Sounds is about going back to our roots,” Hugo says. “N.E.R.D was known for just laying down a groove and really digging in the sounds, raw. There weren't too many layers this time; we brought in Spymob, the original band that worked on In Search Of…. Brent Paschke (guitar) and Eric Fawcett (drums) brought the funk from the original influences we had. Going from the classic rock to the '70s funk swing sound, they captured what we did as far as programming and sonic sketching that we created for them to play over. It was just a matter of joining those elements.”
Williams and Hugo are masters at working in a variety of studios and production methods with everyone from Gwen Stefani and Britney Spears to Kelis, Jay-Z, Nelly, Snoop Dogg and Justin Timberlake, but the recording process for N.E.R.D is surprisingly simple. Typically, Williams arrives at the studio, ideas in full flower, and lays down both a beat (either programmed or played on an assortment of buckets) and vocals. Hugo picks it up from there.
“I would come on top and lay extra instrumentation,” Hugo says. “Then we fit it into the N.E.R.D context. With a live band, you would trade ideas on the spot. Our medium is recording; that is where we bounce ideas. We sit in a forum at the end of the night and go through ideas and sculpt, do the chiseling, and Pharrell might add more things on top, and we shape it. We sculpt it as a team.”
CORNERING THE KORGS
Hugo and Williams constructed Seeing Sounds' base tracks using a Korg 01/W as a sequencer triggering sounds from Korg Triton Extreme and Triton Pro synths. Additionally, Hugo worked in Access Virus TI, as well as Roland JV-1080, JV-2080, XV-5080, TR-808 and TR-909 synths and drum machines. After a round of hardcore bucket drumming, the guys typically added live drums and guitar to fatten individual sources.
“Pharrell programs with a Korg 01/W,” Coleman explains. “People laugh when they hear that, but that is the first keyboard that he learned to use the sequencer on. And he just hasn't strayed away from it. He programs in the 01/W and triggers everything off the other synth modules. He might use some stock sounds in the 01 — the classic Neptunes sounds, the Clavinet sounds, some of the guitar sounds are stock old 01/W sounds. When I'm recording tracks, I will send MIDI beat clock from Pro Tools to the 01/W, and then that triggers everything else.”
But Coleman, who has worked with Madonna, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, assures that the guys are sometimes open to switching up gear in the studio. “As far as programmed drum sounds,” he says, “we used to use the Ensoniq ASR-10 religiously, but lately we use the Triton Extreme as the main drum sampler. Chad is a master sampler/chopper of breakbeats, so he will take old breakbeat records and cut up the snares and hi-hats and kicks. We will put them into the Extreme as he used to do with the ASR-10.”
The N.E.R.D recording template followed a pattern for Seeing Sounds: Williams' drum programs and bucket bashing, vocal tracking, more synths courtesy Chad Hugo, live drumming and guitar, then further “chiseling” and “sculpting” in the band's late-night roundtable “forums.”
“‘Yea You'' was created initially on the keyboard,” Shay explains. “Then Brent and Eric replayed it live, and Chad played the keys. That is how a lot of the pieces are created. First, we lay down ideas on keyboards, then we stencil what we want, then use different musicians to add color to what we want to convey.”
On “Some Day I'll Laugh About It,” bass was programmed on the Triton Extreme, buckets added, followed by live guitar and more buckets. Hugo pulled up some old drum and bass samples from N.E.R.D's early days for “Spazz” and “looped a snare to give it that stutter-y sound.”
Meanwhile, the raucous “Everybody Nose” began with Williams' beat, which was inspired by a chance viewing of a rare video clip, shown to N.E.R.D by Missy Elliott.
“That starts with an acoustic bass patch off a Roland 5080,” Coleman explains from N.E.R.D's home base (Hovercraft Studios) in Virginia Beach, Va. “The beat was all Pharrell; he programmed it on the Korg 01/W, and the drums came off the Triton Extreme. That was inspired by the Baltimore B-More sound. We were working with Missy Elliott, and she was talking about this dance she saw someone doing to B-More house music. She showed this video to Pharrell, and he lost his mind, the way these people were dancing and these crazy beats. Timbaland is scratching in there, too. The big Latin section is again, all Pharrell — all the same instruments; he just flipped the programming. The song is about girls doing cocaine in the bathroom. That is the breakdown in the middle, if you can imagine a girl who is totally coked out of her mind dancing and sweating. That is the Latin club explosion part, mostly programmed beats with some buckets.”
Hugo's favorite track from Seeing Sounds is “Killjoy.” A heavy slab of Latin riff-rock matched with progressive funk, “Killjoy” is jammed full of fuzzy guitars and ends with the cryptic lyrics: “N.E.R.D film starring you and them — color provided by Seeing Sounds.”
“‘Killjoy'' was inspired by this song called ‘The Mexican,''” Hugo says. “It's got this b-boy funk sound. Very gritty and raw but rock-ish, like we're going to have a Krylon [b-boy] battle onstage when we play it. I am really into that track right now. [“The Mexican” was originally recorded by Brit rockers Babe Ruth in the early '70s, then covered by Jellybean Benitez.] That breathing part is Shay on the human beatbox, panned in stereo. There are different layers of guitars, a little Clavinet, Virus synth on the swells and Pharrell playing Triton keyboard bass — it's very James Brown-ish.”
DID WE MENTION BUCKETS?
By now, it's clear the secret weapon behind many of N.E.R.D's tracks (as well as Neptunes' productions, including Gwen Stefani's “Hollaback Girl”) is Williams' generous use of bucket drumming to enhance programmed rhythms. From Los Angeles' Record Plant and Miami's South Beach Studios to N.E.R.D's Hovercraft Studios, Williams maintains a sizable bucket collection to match every sound in his arsenal of rhythmic drum wizardry.
“Every studio we go to Pharrell asks, ‘Do you have my buckets set up?''” Coleman says with a laugh. “He uses anything: a paint can, a big 50-gallon drum, trash buckets. Pharrell typically plays 20 buckets at once. He'll use one like a deep trash bucket for the kick sound, then one with a sharper attack for a snare sound, metal buckets for a percussive feel. He will go from bucket to bucket. It's not like he's playing all the buckets as a kit. He will program a kick and a snare, then we will go behind that and use different bucket sounds to add to the programmed sounds. We put buckets on everything, even recent tracks with Missy Elliott. Sometimes we just empty the garbage from the bathroom trash cans and use those in the studio. It's almost a secret, but it's just buckets, man. It's really hype, and it's really raw. It is what gives their music that crazy raw feel and a lot of attack.
“Pharrell will also do a couple tracks just improvising,” Coleman continues. “Then we will pick the best eight-bar loop from what he did. I use the vocal mics on the buckets, usually a Sony C800G into the Avalon 737. We will even grab one kick-drum bucket or snare and replace it with a programmed kick to make sure it is tight. I might align the buckets with the tom fills sometimes using Pro Tools' SoundReplacer plug-in. You can analyze a tom track and set a threshold of sensitivity and actually set a trigger point so when Pro Tools sees that attack, it will use whatever sample or bucket sound you want and play it at the same exact time. You can have a tom hit; then the bucket hit is triggered by SoundReplacer. So if you have a kick drum you are not happy with, you can use SoundReplacer and demo any kind of kick that you want.”
Williams' buckets matched with Fawcett's live drums are the meat of N.E.R.D's rocket projectile sound. Seeing Sounds leaps out of the speakers, its collective energy and exceptionally clean presentation the exact opposite of many commercial releases. But the N.E.R.D camp took as much care in recording the live drums as with Williams' banging buckets.
“Eric plays drums on all tracks,” Coleman says. “Usually I put a Sony C800G waist high pointed at the kick drum but a little higher, aimed at the middle of kit. I call it a front mic. I've always done that; I did it on the Justin Timberlake record. It's like you're standing in front of the drummer as he is playing. It captures that vibe like you are sticking your head right in the middle of the set. I also close-miked the snare with a Shure SM57 and put an AKG D 112 into the hole in the bass-drum head. For mic pres, I use a Neve 1073 or 1081 on the kick and snare, an Avalon 737 for the front mic, a Purple Audio Biz for the Neumann 47 fet on the second kick-drum mic (room mic) and a Shadow Hills Gamma for the 57 on the snare. Finally, I use a John Hardy M-1 Dual Preamp for the overhead Neumann KM 84.”
Again, as with Williams' buckets, Coleman will extract a perfect loop from Fawcett's recorded drum track, or not. Varying the approach track by track, with Williams in close attendance, Coleman makes judicious cuts.
“We'll loop a portion of Eric Fawcett's drum track or use the whole live take, depending on the recording. On ‘Spazz'' and ‘Killjoy,'' Eric played the track six times top to bottom and we grabbed a good tight eight-bar loop for the groove. Then any type of a fill he'd play, we would just grab that fill off of a playlist and insert it in the track to give it more of a live feel.”
SEEING DOLLAR SIGNS?
Is Seeing Sounds the culmination of Williams and Hugo's magnificent 10-year career? With the duo's worth once estimated at approximately $155 million (as of 2003), it's hard to imagine that Seeing Sounds was designed as anything less than a total artistic statement. With that kind of cash flow, who needs commercialism?
“Ultimately, we just want to make people move,” Hugo says. “Seeing Sounds is in the spirit of hip-hop, and it resides in the classic rock/funk era. Seeing Sounds is dance music, driving fast music. It's pounding chicks music; it's getting high music. The last record was mostly getting high music as far as it being a sit-back, chilled and visualize type of thing. But this has a lot of rebel undertone, and that's the spirit of the first N.E.R.D [album]. You can really dig into where society is at. Not to get to deep, but look at what's going on in the world right now and then jam to this.”
Seeing Sounds at South Beach Studios (Miami) and the Record Plant (Los Angeles)
Computer, DAW/recording software, interfaces
Apogee Rosetta 800 AD/DA converter
Apple Power Mac Dual 1.8 GHz G5 with Cinema Display
Digidesign 96i interface, 192 I/O interface, Pro Tools|HD 3 Accel, SYNC I/O
Digidesign Pro Control, 24 channels with Edit Pack
SSL 4000 G, 9000 J
Access Virus TI
E-mu Systems E4XT, Emulator
II, Emulator III and Emax
Korg 01/W Workstation, Triton Extreme, Triton Pro and TR-Rack
Roland Juno-106, JV-1080, JV-2080 and XV-5080s (with expansion cards)
Yamaha Motif Rack
Line 6 Echo Farm, Amp Farm
Plug-ins from Bomb Factory, Metric Halo, Sans Amp, Sony, Waves
AKG C 12 VR, C 414 and D 112
Neumann U 47 fet, KM 84
Shure SM57, SM58 and SM81
Avalon Vt-737sp “Baby Face Mod”
Focusrite ISA 430
John Hardy Company M-1
Neve 1073s and 1081s
Purple Audio Biz
Shadow Hills Gamma
Summit Audio TPA-200B tube preamp
(2) dbx 160s compressor
GML 8200 Parametric EQ
Pultec EQP-1 EQ
(2) Teletronix LA-2A compressor
Tube-Tech CL 1B compressor
(2) Urei 1176 compressor
Linn Electronics LinnDrum, Linn 9000
Roland TR-808, TR-909
Bryston 4B power amps
Genelec 1031s, 1037s, 7070 subwoofer
ProAc Studio 100s
The care and feeding of Williams' vocal signal chain is no less complex than all the programming and bucket/drum kit recording. The Sony C800G gets the bulk of the workout, paired with Avalon, Tube-Tech or Neve mic pres.
“I run the Sony C800G into the Avalon 737,” engineer Andrew Coleman recalls, “normally setting a fast attack/slow release on the compressor. I try not to compress Pharrell's vocals any more than 2 to 3 dB — real minimal compression going into Pro Tools, if at all. Normally, I will have the preamp high gain on zero and the highpass filter set at 60 to 80 Hz. Sometimes I will vary the attack on the compressor. A lot of people say the Avalon is not fast enough, but for Pharrell's voice, either the Sony C800G or the AKG C 12 VR and that preamp works great on his voice. I will go to a Neve 1081 or a Tube-Tech CL 1B compressor occasionally. I use a little reverb, but Pharrell doesn't like to record with any effects. I put a little hall on it and a quarter-note delay afterwards to give it a little more oomph. He always asks to take the lows off his voice, which means rolling off to about 140 Hz, so it sounds a little crispier.”