It's hard not to stare at the shards of 24-carat ice dangling from his chain monogrammed with the scripted logo TS. Tall, lanky and prompt, Andre “Dre” Lyon — one-half of the Terror Squad's production unit — is easy to spot in the lobby of his swanky Manhattan hotel. But while Dre is out politicking, his partner Cool is buried back in a Miami studio.
But Dre is clearly ready to rejoin Marcello “Cool” Valenzano. He's weary of travel after three weeks of meetings with artists, label reps and the duo's attorney. But that's all part of the job — there's more to being Platinum producers than grinding out beats all day. Without deals, there are no diamonds. After all, those deals allow them to grace Billboard charts, be part owners of a Miami restaurant, produce the soundtrack for EA Sports' NBA Live 2005 video game and lay claim to their own Epidemic imprint on Jive Records.
Dre perks up as the stories start flowing, his fancy watch glinting against his glass of San Pellegrino from his animated hand gestures. Names like Joe, Ja and 50 are sprinkled into the stories — referring to Fat Joe, Ja Rule and 50 Cent — some of the artists that the Cool & Dre production team works with on a regular basis.
Every song has a story, and Dre is telling the tale of “New York,” Ja Rule's hit featuring Fat Joe and Jadakiss from Ja Rule's R.U.L.E. (Def Jam, 2004). “New York” started off as a Cool & Dre beat that both Jadakiss and Fat Joe chose. Cool & Dre's main artist, Joe, won the track but ended up abandoning it. It's indicative of how things roll in the world of hip-hop heavyweights.
“Cool started singing the KRS-One joint ‘100 Guns’ [from the Boogie Down Productions album Edutainment]. And I was like, ‘Yo, that would make the illest hook if we flipped it,” Dre says. “I know who could do it.’” Dre took the idea for his hook to Ja Rule and Irv Gotti. “Irv was like, ‘If you don't got the beat, I'll make one,’” Dre says. “And I was like, ‘Naw, I got the beat.’” After a dramatic pause, Dre admits, “I didn't have a beat.
“I jumped in my car, and I started driving, and I was like, ‘Yo, I know what beat!’” he continues. “I went back to the studio and referenced the beat that Joe turned down.” When Gotti played the beat for Joe, he was impressed. “I got Joe on the phone, and I was like, ‘That's the beat you didn't want,’” Dre says.
Although the aggressive synth of “New York” made for a huge Cool & Dre record, The Game and 50 Cent's laid-back, soul swinging “Hate It or Love It” from The Game's Documentary (Aftermath/Interscope, 2005) is causing the latest buzz. Making winning beats is clearly the fun part of Cool & Dre's world. Dre makes producing records sound like the party you missed last weekend, complete with animated details about who was there and what went down.
“When me and Cool go into the studio, we're very prepared,” Dre says.
The Miami natives live a short distance from each other and traipse between their respective homes that house their studios. Gear is divided up or changed around in a what's-mine-is-yours fashion. Dre's studio has the vocal recording booth that they constructed whereas Cool has the set of Technics turntables.
“There's no one way we do it to get it popping,” Cool says on the line from Miami. “We did the majority of Joe's album at Dre's spot. But we did the beats at my studio, and we mixed in New York. As long as sonically you know what you're doing, you can get away with murder.”
This interchangeable comfort is built on a decade of working together, dating back to high school. At the time, Cool was a DJ banging the Miami bass and hip-hop. Meanwhile, Dre was into hip-hop but also on the tip of his old baby sitter's music: '80s and '90s synth bands like Tears for Fears and Guy. School choir led to their collaborations, which was R&B in the first go-around.
When the guys decided to get more into hip-hop production, they spotted the Ensoniq ASR-10 on their first trip to the music store. It took care of a lot of their production needs, but soon Cool and Dre became frustrated trying to attain the big sounds that they hungered for. “An engineer was like, ‘You got weak drums,’” Cool says. “We couldn't get drums to get a big sound. A lot of people are under the impression you can fix it in the mix, and then boom, the engineer is going to pull it out. One engineer told us back in the day, ‘You put shitty sounds in, you gonna get shitty sound back out.’”
SYNTH LINES AND LIVE WIRES
Cool and Dre began to work with local rappers in the late '90s, and when touring artists came to town, they heard about the hot production duo around Miami. But it was Fat Joe who really paid attention. The producers started working with Joe on his 2001 album, Jealous Ones Still Envy (Atlantic), and he frequently name-dropped the duo on many of his cuts.
“It usually starts with a melody most of the time,” Dre says of his production process, and the Yamaha Motif ES7 is his favorite toy. “The sound is so big; the strings are big; the synths are the shit. I would love to meet the guy who made that machine.”
Although the partners produce the majority of their work with the Akai MPC2000, they're learning the ropes of Propellerhead Reason 2.5 and Apple Garageband. “Garageband is not as sophisticated as Reason,” Cool says. “It's a sequencer for dummies. Anybody can make a beat on it.” Although not particularly complex, Garageband is helping with the transition to soft samplers and synths. “We've been using drum machines our whole lives,” Dre says. “That's what we know.”
The guys also know a little something about working with session musicians. “We deal with live instrumentation so much,” Cool says. “We will work with a guitar player, and there's 30 takes, and we'll keep all the takes and turn them into samples.” Cool and Dre take pride in the sound library they have created, which now takes up more than 20 GB of memory. They save everything and often revisit the library to try to find that perfect sound or to get new ideas.
But like with most hip-hop technicians, sampling is essential. “Whenever we hear something we like, we sample off the 1200s and flip it and make it sound crazy,” Dre says. “We cut the samples up a lot. Sometimes, we have to cut a sample up two or three times to make it fit the beat. I even sample the shit right off my iPod these days.”
“We listen to a whole record from beginning to end and take one hit from it and the dirt that comes with it,” Cool adds. “We might do a low-end cut. If a sample has some drums and we play new drums, we don't want the drums to be clashing. We cut out the low frequencies so you don't hear all that bottom when you throw your kicks on.”
Cool and Dre based the nostalgic feel of “Hate It or Love It” on five separate samples from The Spinners' “Rubberband Man.” The duo chopped up the samples and rearranged them to create a different melody. “We did a drum track on it and percussion, and the driving ba do do do [bass line] is the last thing we added,” Cool says.
And when it came to working on their Epidemic artist Dirtbag's album, Eyes Above the Water (Epidemic/Jive, 2005), the guys didn't go straight by the book with a kick/snare/hi-hat combo. “The song ‘Fly Away’ is extra-slow,” Dre says. “For that, we used a MIDI bongo sound instead of using a kick out of our sound module.”
VOCALS AND CONSOLES
In addition to their work with Epidemic, Cool and Dre are finishing tracks on albums for P. Diddy, Q-Tip, Mase, Joe Budden, YoungBloodZ and Mary J. Blige. When it comes to recording vocals, the guys don't jump at the chance to take a break while the engineers do the tracking. It's still hands-on or, at least, brains-on. “We like to be there to give our input on certain things,” Cool says. “You have to be there with certain singers who might go out with a flat note.”
When it comes to effects, Cool and Dre treat singers and MCs differently. “For a singer, we throw in reverb and delay,” Cool says. “For rappers, we use a preamp and run compression on the Avalon [Vt-737sp], maybe a little high end if it's sounding a little dull, depending on the rapper. On a thin voice, we add low end. For Joe, we add a little high end and a little compression because he has such a big voice.
“My theory is that every artist has a mic they sound great on,” Cool continues. “If you have a good mic and good mic preamp, one little change of frequency or compression changes everything.”
Although Cool and Dre perform engineering duties in a crunch and are all ears in the studio, the two know that they can rely on their longtime engineer, Robert “Big Briz” Brisbane, who doesn't mess with the nuances they painstakingly add. “If we have a drum kick, we used that kick for a reason because it might not clash with the bass,” Cool says. “If the engineer doesn't know, they make it sound how they hear it, and they'll put their own kick and put compression on it. They'll slow down the kick, and they'll take off the gate on the kick. If you have a kick that has a boom and static, you want that; it keeps the track dirty with a lower frequency. Sometimes, that noise is part of the beat.”
Putting all the pieces together, Cool and Dre are perfectionists when it comes to shipping the final product. “All our stuff is titled with notes,” Cool says. “Missing hi-hats aren't muted. We like sending everything to an engineer, with no room for error.” And when they wrap up one project, there's no time to pause — that's why they're cleaning up in the game.
“When I go home today, tomorrow, I'll probably make seven new beats in my house by myself,” Dre says. “Cool will have seven new beats in his house by himself. He'll come to my house with a CD that he did. And I'll be like, ‘I want to do something to that, that, that and that.’ And I'll play him my beats, and he'll be like, ‘All right, I want to do something to that, that and that.’” And that's when the real fun begins for Cool & Dre.
BEATS FROM ACROSS THE STREET
Computers, DAWs, recording hardware:
Apple iPods (4); Mac G4/933MHz, Mac G4/1.25GHz computers; PowerBook G4/1.33GHz 12-inch, PowerBook G4/800MHz 15-inch laptops
Denon PMD670 Portable Recorder
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD, Pro Tools|Mixplus systems; Pro Tools LE 5.3, 6.4 software
LaCie d2 hard drive
NEC 50-MP4 50-inch plasma display
Sharp 17-inch flat-screen monitor
Western Digital 250GB Dual-Option Combo External Drive
Consoles, mixers, interfaces:
Mackie 32•8 32-channel 8-bus recording console, 1604-VLZ Pro mixer
Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixers:
Akai MPC1000s (2), MPC2000XLs (2), MPC3000 sampling workstations
Ensoniq ASR-10 sampler
Technics SL-1200 turntables
Numark CDX CD turntable: “You can speed a beat up crazy-fast and keep the tempo the same and keep the quality,” Cool says. “If they put a CD burner in the CDX, that would be incredible. It's so big, they could fit an 80GB hard drive in it, and you could record internally. If they had a function to store stuff on a memory switch, it would be crazy.”
Synths, modules, software, instruments:
Bomb Factory BF-2A compressor plug-in
E-mu Proteus 2000, Vintage Pro, Virtuoso 2000 sound modules
Fender Telecaster electric guitar
Korg Trinity keyboard
Kurzweil PC88 keyboard
Novation SuperNova sound module
Propellerhead Reason 2.5 software
Roland JV-880, XV-5080 sound modules
Serato Pitch 'n Time AudioSuite plug-in
Sony Oxford EQ plug-in
Washburn acoustic guitar
Yamaha Motif ES7
Mics, mic preamps, compressors:
Neumann U 87 mic
Avalon Vt-737sp preamp
UREI LA-4 compressor/limiter
Alesis Proactive 2.0s
Tannoy System 1200s