In a quiet apartment building at the edge of Glendale in Los Angeles, a handful of producers cook up music at a feverish pace. In one studio room, DJ Motive8 — who can be heard on the 5.1 surround sound hip-hop album Awaken (Electromatrix, 2001) — gushes about his favorite software, Propellerhead Reason. Farther down the hall, a different studio setup is whirring and on point for the next burst of creative energy to hit it. In that room, Black Eyed Peas' Will.I.Am sorts through a slew of CD-Rs, looking for his group's third full-length, Elephunk (Interscope). The label has kept a very tight lid on the music to avoid Internet leakage, so few people other than label staff and friends have heard any tracks.
When the music suddenly breaks the quiet of Will's serene studio tucked away in the back of the apartment, it's as if someone opened up one of those prank cans of worms. What comes first is “Hands Up,” featuring horn players the Horn Dogs and guitarist Dylan Dresdow. Note-bending slurs of horns come and go like cars driving by and occasionally lead to moments of rapid-fire Latin-style blasts. Then, there's the bluesy slide guitar and the machine-gun raps of Will, Apl.de.Ap and Taboo.
“Holiday” and “Get Retarded” follow, and suddenly it's clear that there's something of a theme going on: It's like the party vibe of 50 Cent's “In da Club” with more hype and 10 times the energy. “Get Retarded” is the most raucous of the album's club anthems. If chants of “Let's get retarded in here!” don't give you a sense of escapism, then all you have to do is feel the song's old-fashioned hip-hop bounce. Meanwhile, “Holiday” gives a lyrical nod to Madonna's song by the same name, but with hip-hop's distinctive deep bass and snapping snare. A singer by the name of Fergie sings the vocal hook while BEP gets nasty with lyrics: “It's time to get wasted and skulk the whole place for girls with cute faces. / 'Cause I see some fly mommas, so back your vaginas but don't bring the drama.” Crass it may be, but isn't it high time the nation unglued itself from television news and got back to some booty shaking?
NEW WORLD ORDER
For Black Eyed Peas' first two albums, Behind the Front (Interscope, 1998) and Bridging the Gap (Interscope, 2000), Will's Akai MPC3000 was the workhorse. Since then, a change of guard has taken place. “I got a Pro Tools rig,” Will says. “Last album, I had the rig that's now in Mo's [Motive8] room. Before, I was working on [Tascam] DA-88s, and I was really heavily on the MPC.” Will kept the MPC for himself, but it basically serves as a conduit between his turntable and his Digidesign Pro Tools|HD system. It also hosts a library of sounds that Will occasionally dips into. But the MPC is only a part-time employee nowadays. “Pro Tools really changed my life,” Will admits. “It sounds like a commercial, but, really, it has. Before, everything revolved around the MPC, and now, it plays so small a role. I don't want to knock Akai or anything. I just don't use it like I used to. On this album, I don't think I programmed one drum program on my MPC.”
Pro Tools now serves as Will's stage for sequencing as he bounces around from device to device and records live instruments to build his beats. “I can program the kick with a keyboard, or I can use the pads [on the MPC] instead of relying on the one machine, because every machine has a different feel. The [E-mu] SP-1200 sounds different than the MPC, and the MPC sounds different than an [Ensoniq] ASR-10, and the ASR-10 sounds different than any other sequencer. And I got tired of relying on one machine to determine what my sound would be.”
Instead of spending the time truncating samples in the MPC, Will now chops everything up as he looks at his large Cinema Display screen. “This makes it a lot faster because I can see the waveform,” he says. “I deal with it visually rather than just relying on numbers.” Working in Pro Tools has also encouraged Will to stop worrying about quantization, because, using the grid system in Pro Tools, he can change the timing and feel of a beat at any point with just a few mouse-clicks. “Now, I just rely on me, my swing. If I want it to swing, I'll swing it,” he says. “So far, this whole feel is me. It's my laziness, how I was feeling that day. I'm not relying on a machine to mimic what I'm feeling. And right here with my MPC, I have to worry about the swing. Don't get me wrong: The MPC is the shit. I like it, but ever since I've been fucking with the Pro Tools, it's [provided] so much freedom because I can see it, and I can manipulate audio, maneuver it in a second. And the audio is stamped for time. I can go in and figure out when I created it. It's on my hard drive at the time when it came into the computer. So it's a little bit more personal. Wow, I did this at two o'clock!”
TAILOR-MADE TO HIP-HOP
Will recently produced a song with rock band Papa Roach, which he gave the hip-hop treatment. “I just recorded everything, suggested things, moved things, manipulated the sounds, editing, all that stuff,” he says. But he approached the song in a nonrock way. “It's perspective, where I see levels,” he says. “A lot of times, a rock producer ain't gonna put the kick all in the front. I put the kick in the front. And I make sure that the snare has a snap on it, whether or not we put claps on top of it. So instead of it going, pchhooooo — that typical rock snare with the big roomy sound — mine just went pchht. It's pretty much the claps. It's the party sound.”
The bass sounds in Black Eyed Peas songs tend to be round and warm. But sometimes, messages are hidden in the bass. “All of the bass sounds I normally use are warm,” he says. “But if I want an attack on it, what I'll do is record a really warm sub-Moog sound, and I'll overdub a guitar and play the same bass line muted. So on the Moog, it's boo bo bo boo boo boooo. And on guitar, I'll tune all the way down and just mute it [with the palm of the hand]. I just want the attack of it so it's blew ble ble blew blew blew. So now, I have a subby-ass bass with a real attack from a guitar string.”
“The best way is to show you,” Will says about his production process. So without hesitation, he opens up a Pro Tools window, sets the bpm to 101, hits Record on one of the tracks and runs off to the vocal booth in the other room. The booth has a video camera set up in it, so a video screen in the main studio room reveals Will picking up various instruments. “I got my shaker, for example,” he says and shakes it for a couple of bars. Then, he plays a tambourine, sets it down, picks up a snare from the floor and hits that a handful of times. “It's probably distorted, so I'm going to back up,” he says as he steps away from the mic a little. Nothing here is labored. Will just does it. Then he darts back into the main room again.
“Alright, now I got my sounds. No samples, all just real shit,” he says. “Then I zoom in on the shit: shaker. I sample that.” Will quickly cuts up the shaker part of the track, loops it and turns it up. Magically, it works with the set tempo. “Wow, check this out,” he says. “I played it at 101 bpm. That's hot.” Then he cuts up and loops the tambourine part. To fit it to the assigned 101 bpm (using TDM software), he drags the part to snap to the nearest measure start point and pulls down the TC/E Trim tool, which allows Pro Tools to automatically compress the part. “Then I get my little snare and shit,” Will continues. “That's really distorted, but that's okay. I'll work with it for ideas. So I gotta make that 101, time-stretch it and make it all one. Now I got a two-bar loop, and I move that to the beginning and make it eight bars and consolidate that.” (He hits Option + Shift + 3 on his Mac to consolidate the four loops to one big loop.)
Will moves each loop to a separate track, lines them up and presses Play. From the speed at which this all happens, you'd expect a rudimentary little loop. But when Will plays everything — snare, tambourine and shaker — together, it's a bona fide beat. The tambourine hits on the one and three; the snare hits on the two and four; and the shaker hits eight times per measure. “And then, I take all this stuff that I just created, my little loop, and I put that shit on a bus of its own, bus 1 and 2,” he continues. “Now I can treat it as if it's one sample for EQing. Now I add some claps; that's what I use my drum machine for.” Will adds claps on the two and four to fill out the snare sound. “Now I got an eight-bar loop,” Will says. “Now let's make it for three minutes.” He duplicates the loops quickly with the Command + D shortcut until it reaches the three-minute mark. “Now I got a three-minute loop,” Will says. “I would have been programming all day on my MPC.”
At this point, 10 minutes haven't even gone by, and Will is still on a roll. “Then I get my little kick,” he says. “I go over to my [Korg] Triton. This is one particular kick that I like right now. It's called Street Kick.” For this, Will adds a bit more variation. He plays along with his loop, hitting on the one of the measure, on the offbeat before the two, once on the two (with more emphasis) and once on the four. Then, he alternates between that, adding another hit on the offbeat before four and hitting the four with more emphasis. And on the last of four measures, he hits both the three and the four for a little finality. The beat is starting to sound like a Black Eyed Peas beat.
“So I got my little kick,” Will says. “I make sure everything's cool, nothing's clipping. And just so it doesn't sound stiff or so empty, I'm going to do my kick real big and punchy like I like it.” He opens up an EQ plug-in, cuts out the bottom low end of the kick and boosts somewhere between 40 and 70 Hz. “As you can see here,” he says, “the first thing I rolled off is [the low-end] frequency. So the bass lives here [points to left-most part of spectrum], the kick lives here [farther to the right], all my guitars and keyboards live here [points to middle], and my hi-hat lives here [even farther to the right].” Will's bass guitar or bass synth is always lower than the kick. “Yeah, that's the booty,” he adds. But he doesn't go by numbers when he's EQing. “I just make mountains,” he says. The idea of using a cheat sheet to EQ at specific frequency numbers is almost offensive to Will: “Fuck that shit! That don't mean nothing! I just know that I'm supposed to feel it here [puts hand on chest].”
With that, Will springs up; adds a signature BEP syncopated, warm synth-bass sound from his Roland Juno-6; and suddenly, he has created a body-moving track in merely 11 minutes and eight seconds. Of course, this isn't to say that songs should always be created this quickly. But it is certainly a good exercise if you ever get stuck in the studio.
Even though Will has a cool track on hand, he still has one last experiment to try. Certain that he's not done with his kick sound, Will turns his attention to his turntable, which is hooked up through the MPC and into his Pro Tools|HD system. “I want crackle,” he says. “I want it to sound old. This is what I use my MPC for, too.” Will puts a record on the platter and plays a crackly noise. “Naw, that's not doing anything,” he says, so he takes the record off. “I need a dirtier record.” He finds one with more crackle to it and records it onto another track. “So now I got a little room sound,” he says.
But that's still not dirty enough, so it's plug-in time. “Now, I'm going to put some more dirt on it, and I get that from Amp Farm,” Will says. Suddenly, that crackle sound is amplified, and there's a ringing sound to the kick. But as it turns out, only some of that amplified sound has anything to do with Amp Farm. “Actually, it's the reverb from the speakers vibrating against the needle,” Will says. One of the Event monitors sits less than a couple of feet from the turntable. When he plays the kick sound through the monitors (and the Pro Tools track for the turntable is set to Record), the turntable needle picks up the sound from the left monitor. Will isolates just the turntable channel to reveal the crackle and the now submarine-sounding kick.
“I just treat the needle as a mic,” he says. “I never did that before. That was by accident. If you have a punchy kick that doesn't have a lot of low end or you have a kick that has punch but is too short, you can add room by using the needle as a mic. You want it to ring like if you had a real kick and the tom next to it picked it up. A lot of the time, you're hearing the vibrations that the toms and snare drums pick up from the kick. I'll notice that I have a kick, but it sounds so stiff. It'll be like pfoo kchht pfoo kchht. But I want it to go pffoooo pchht pffooooo pchht without having to use reverb. So I'll put the kick on its own track and solo the turntable track and the kick.” Will then experiments with turning up and down monitor levels. “The louder I turn it, the more it picks up,” he says. “And it's giving it room.” The kick now seems to have more reverb and movement to it. “But if I turn the volume down and record it, it ain't gonna pick up nothing. So how high you push the volume on the monitors is equivalent to how hard you hit the kick drum for the tom to vibrate. So it's just acting as a technical room. And when you put a distortion on it with Amp Farm, it makes it even more sensitive.”
Will sits down and saves his track-in-progress, surveying what he has so far. It's interesting that the production technique that gives the track its edge was stumbled upon purely by accident. “Actually,” Will says with a laugh, “all the stuff we've learned is from fuck-ups.”
PEAS IN A POD: BEP'S STUDIO
Akai MPC3000 MIDI production center
Apple Mac G4 w/Cinema Display
Avalon 737sp preamp
Digidesign 888/24 I/O (2)
Digidesign 1622 I/O
Digidesign/Focusrite Control 24
Digidesign Pro Tools
Digidesign USD Sync
Event Project Studio 8 monitors
Furman power conditioner
Hafler Pro 500 amp
Glyph Trip rack hard drive
Korg Triton Pro X keyboard
Neumann M147 mic
Roland Juno-6 keyboard
Technics SL-1200MK2 turntable
UREI 828 loudspeakers (Will switches between referencing with these and the Events.)
Vestax PMC-06 Pro A mixer